Skip to site content

How Olympics Can Reignite Our Resolve for Justice

I was hopelessly hooked on this summer’s Olympic Games, fueled no doubt by the blistering success of Team Great Britain.

As medal winner after medal winner was paraded before an adoring public, it was hard not to want to feel part of the success.

In their various media interviews, they have also dutifully remained on message, repeating a familiar refrain of appreciation for the United Kingdom’s “Lottery Funding,” without which their success is likely to not have happened.

It is not my intent to spoil anyone’s party by pouring cold water on the superb achievement of so many of our athletes.

But, as in so many aspects of life, I am intrigued how even in an arena like this one, familiar themes of justice simply will not disappear.

I am sure that it is much more than simply a dutiful refrain when our athletes recite, “We’ve got funding.”

There is absolutely no doubt that a sizeable and intentional investment in British sport has borne significant fruit. And such realities can be a genuine source of inspiration and motivation to emerging generations.

But it begs the question: How many have failed to reach their potential, failed to put their nation on the map because they don’t have the funding?

Even our sports success is a reminder to us that we live in a world of inequality and injustice, which our leisure pursuits cannot help but reflect.

The entire run-up to the games was dogged by the controversy of whether it is right for a nation to be undertaking such a financially demanding endeavor when so many of its citizens live in abject poverty.

Many live in slums and favelas in the very shadow of the Olympic venues, and, indeed, some were forced from the only homes they knew to make way for these now iconic edifices.

We might argue, of course, that these are the very communities that should be able to experience an event like the Olympic Games. Why should they be limited to those wealthy and economically successful nations that can stage them without such a great social cost?

And we can rightly ask what positive legacies might emerge from such an initiative being staged in such proximity to some of the world’s poorest communities.

Yet another unavoidable reality of these games was the rows of empty seats in the arenas, even for some of the top-level medal events. Clearly the ticket cost was out of the reach of the immediate population.

I suspect that even if they could have been made available for free, many are locked into a way of life whereby they simply do not have the luxury of being able to while away their hours watching elite sports when there are mouths to feed, livelihoods to protect and livings to eke out.

Of course, the Olympics had its positive impact, too.

It was wonderful to see “Team Refugee” marching out in the opening ceremony and equally encouraging to see the positive reception they were given by the Rio crowd.

One of the most inspiring of their stories is that of Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, who saved her own and the lives of a boat full of refugees by towing them in the open seas for more than three hours.

While other Olympians were heading for the training camps with armies of coaches, psychologists and dietitians, she was literally swimming for her life.

But Team Refugee provided a welcome reminder that those who seek refuge from war, violence and oppression are not “swarms” or statistics, but real people with all the hopes, dreams and ambitions that we are so keen to seek and celebrate.

Their lives matter, and if as a nation, we are willing to invest millions in enabling a handful of athletes to achieve our ambitions for them, might we now extend that same attitude and investment to those who continue to come to our shores seeking shelter and refuge.

The message we have heard again and again is: “If you believe in it enough, you can achieve it.”

It is, indeed, true that our successful athletes have displayed a huge amount of grit and determination to get to the place they have.

But they have also been in an environment that makes it possible with travel funding, coaches, equipment grants and so on.

It is not just that they believe in success, policymakers and funding bodies believe in it too – this has genuinely been a communal endeavor.

And thus it begs the question: What injustices and social ills might we eradicate from our society if we approached them with the same collective determination and investment?

The hopes of its organizers is that, having absorbed hour after hour of adrenalin-pumping Olympic action, another generation will be inspired to become the next cohort of medal takers.

But as a Christian community, perhaps we need to issue another call to inspiration.

Might this also reignite our resolve to highlight and address the injustices of our world that cannot be hidden from any aspect of our lives, not even the Olympic Games.

Phil Jump is regional minister team leader of the North Western Baptist Association in the United Kingdom and a member of the Baptists Together editorial board. A version of this article first appeared on the blog of the Joint Public Issues Team, a joint endeavor of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church to address public issues. It is used with permission.