The weeks and months leading up to the Olympics were full of the usual stories of a massive urban clean-up, of building costs close to a billion dollars (99.3 million, to be precise), of concerns about traffic, parking, terrorism, security and pollution. Add to that list the political turmoil in Brazil, including a recession, teacher strikes and an impeached president. And then there’s the highly publicized Zika virus, the polluted waterways, and a doping scandal disqualifying the entire Russian gymnastics team! There is quite a stain on the Olympics this year. Yet, the TV production machine blares on, with highlights and tape delays, live events and athlete bios.
The Opening Ceremonies lauded the history of Brazil, including its indigenous peoples, the history of its slave trade, and the colonizing Europeans’ influences. I was bemused. Much like the history of my own country (USA), these are points in the timeline where one might feel uncomfortable. Is it enough to just mention it? Are we tasked with doing more?
There was also the nod to the rain forest and the Amazon basin, a creative and a worthy inspiration. But its inclusion highlighted our international indifference towards global warming and deforestation. As part of Creation, do we forget we are tasked with the vocation of caretaking our planet? Do we understand the importance of the rain forest, the so-called “the lungs of the earth”?
I ponder the cost of the world-class sports facilities, and the favelas* that were leveled to build them. I grumble at the Rio committee, who in its zeal to beautify the area around the venues, leveled neighborhoods of homes built and occupied for generations. I remember a similar theme in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the Techwood neighborhood was demolished to build the Olympic Village, and the construction of the Olympic stadium displaced the residents of Summerhill, Peoplestown and Mechanicsville. (Source: Southern Spaces) Disproportionately, people of color and lower socioeconomic status are impacted by the building of these facilities.
Maybe the hype is getting to me. Maybe the ridiculous number of commercials (and delayed broadcast) of the Opening Ceremonies set me on edge. Maybe it was a personal health issue (healing nicely, thanks) that made me less indulgent of ‘MERican nationalist chants and star-spangled swimwear.
At the same time, like many of you, I’m watching almost every event! I’m musing on the strange dichotomy of Olympic athletes, waiting tables and working retail grunt jobs to pay for their training, and Olympic officials hauling in huge salaries. I marvel at the athletes’ grace, grit and skill, competing for the love of sport and the dream of a medal, any color medal!
For those of us in pastoral roles, there is a call to proclaim justice.
For athletes whose families work extra jobs to pay for coaches and trainers. For neighborhoods demolished for Olympic infrastructure. For the environmental impact of our casual and careless use of fragile resources in rain forests, not only for the health of our planet, but the survival of the species who live within it.
Part of our pastoral responsibility includes owning our part of the problem.
And here I’ll ‘fess up: I am not the best at conservation. I like my air conditioning in the summer. My 14-year-old car is wheezing along with abysmal gas mileage. I use electricity to wash and dry my clothes, my dishes and charge my many electronic devices. But I am also learning to compost, recycle and reduce my use of plastics.
In the end, the focus, even from the TV production machine, comes back to the athletes. Their hard work, dedication and competitiveness. The glory of their victories. The celebration by their families.
I was reminded of Jaques line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”
Yes. These athletes are players on the world’s stage called the Olympics. But so are we! May we take this opportunity to use the larger stage of the Olympics to hone our awareness and our actions. Our greater world depends on it.
*(Favelas, by the way, are not slums, though they were labeled as such to justify razing them! According to the Catlytic Communites website, favelas are sturdily built homes, held for generations, with working utilities and even internet service.)
Rev. Deb Vaughn works as a Board-Certified Chaplain for a hospice in the Washington, DC area. Deb maintains a personal blog at An Unfinished Symphony. She is among the contributors to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.
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