Two things my wife Jill and I noticed whilst watching the men’s marathon at the Olympics last night.
Firstly, how fast it actually is. Fit young blokes on the other side of the barrier were attempting to keep pace for a while with the elites. Kipchoge was gliding along – black silk in a breeze. The 5km time between 30km and 35km was 14:25 mins. If 85 super fit blokes did a relay alongside the race for 500m each they would still have to have settled for silver. Amazing stuff.
The second thing was how God-focussed or religious so many of the runners were at the end of the race. Pretty much every second runner either crossed themselves or similar, with some – including a particularly Pentecostal Brazilian – getting down on their knees and praising or praying. Lots of Africans crossing themselves too.
Even the westerners. USA’s bronze medallist, Galen Rupp crossed himself as he crossed the line, whilst sixth place, Jared Ward, is well known as a Mormon, and works as a stats professor at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City.
For all the talk about the Olympic celebration of human brilliance, there was plenty of good old fashioned religion there too. Whether that was South African rowers pointing to Jesus, Egypt’s women’s volley ballers wearing the veil, the florid and torrid South Americans, or the quietly gracious such as Australia’s own Eloise Wellings.
What to make of that? Well, not too much. But not too little either. For all of the self-focus of athletes in pursuit of glory, there was a lot of glory directed towards God, by winners and also-rans alike.
Living in our hardening secular setting it is sometimes easy to believe the mantra that God has fallen out of favour in the world and that it’s inevitable that religion will decline as science, democracy, neo-liberalism and progressive politices advances. Perhaps that looks true from a cafe in Melbourne or a university department in Paris.
But pull back for a moment and look at an event like the Olympics where the world truly does come together and another picture emerges altogether; a world of deep religious belief. A world of people made in the image of a glorious God, that even the body-worshipping pagan glory of the Olympic ideal cannot out-glorify.