I haven’t been watching the Olympics. Part of why is that I’ve been quite busy with work. I also am one of those who think we shouldn’t be bringing together all these athletes, trainers, journalists, and other support persons during a pandemic (even if the spectators are largely absent). Yet I’m also not missing the Olympics. I’m not wondering what’s going on or what I’ve missed. So, I’m digging deeper and here’s some of what I’m realizing.

First, the premise of reviving the Olympic Games in 1896 was, in the words of an Olympic brochure, to “strive towards a more peaceful world.” Did you know there’s something called the Olympic Truce? It calls “for a halt to all conflicts [and] recalls the concept of the truce observed during the Ancient Games.” As such, we’ve come to think of it as a break from our worldwide hostilities and a spot of friendly competition.

But it’s not friendly to many of those who are involved. One clear indicator of this is the people who are tearing down Simone Biles on social media after she withdrew from the Olympics all-around gymnastics participation. People say she let the US down—but gymnasts in the past have suffered personal harm when playing hurt in the past, and recognizing that someone’s not in the right shape mentally is just as important as not being in the right shape physically. Putting country before self should be limited to war. Have these games become the modern equivalent of warfare?

Some theorists claim that America’s football games have become the “moral equivalent of war.” I’ve felt for a while that the tribal, us-vs.-them mentality which drives professional sports fans is unhealthy. It’s not good for us to think of our fellow Americans as the enemy—look where it has gotten us politically! (I intend to reflect on that further in two weeks.) Many of the athletes are actually better than the fans in terms of having positive, healthy relationships with players on other teams. You can see that by watching how some baseball players chat with friends on the opposite team when they stop at a base.

Of course, some of that friendliness comes from those athletes having once been on the same team—which is another thing that’s missing when we treat sports games as the equivalent of warfare. Our group becomes the only group, the only possibility. Personally, even though we haven’t lived in Boston for fifteen years, the tendency to root for the Boston Red Sox and against the Yankees is still very strong! Once that us-vs.-them mentality gets hold of us, it’s hard to let it go—but I’m finding, more and more, that I want to.

So, I’m not watching the Olympics. I’m not waving the flag, cheering for “our side,” or watching the medal count. Instead, I’m slowing down, taking time to notice the beauty all around me. I’m paying attention to the work and the conversations that show up right in front of me. I’m praying for folks still recovering from flooding in Flagstaff and Germany, and that the Olympics won’t turn into a superspreader event. I’m also hoping that the increased awareness of athletes’ mental health needs will slowly and inevitably transform sports into something more sustainable for us, individually and collectively.

Will you join me in these prayers? What prayers would you add to the list?

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