Four years ago, as the Chinese handed over the Olympic flag to the British, I wondered how those islanders could ever match the spell-binding display of artistic precision and mass choreography which opened the Beijing Games.
On Friday evening we witnessed Britain’s answer: humour, history, helicopters, hospital beds and–of all things–hymns! Christian hymns!
Firstly, William Blake’s patriotic Jerusalem provided the soundtrack for a spectacular portrayal of the invasion of England’s green and pleasant land by dark, Satanic mills.
Then, Welsh children sang their nation’s unofficial anthem, Guide me O Thou great Jehovah, still often sung at Rugby matches in Wales.
Later, a reverent rendition of Abide With Me accompanied a dance dramatising the struggle between life and death, in remembrance of the victims of the 7/7 bombing in London.
The orchestra, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle (I thought that was British humour but that’s his real name) then struck up the soundtrack of ‘Chariots of Fire’–a title taken incidentally from Blake’s hymn. Of course, what we will remember about that item, say in 2016, was Mr Bean’s virtuoso piano (and running) performance!
But it also reminded the global audience of four billion(!) of the classic story of Scotsman Eric Liddell, the Christian Olympian who refused to run in his 100-metre event on a Sunday in the 1924 Paris Olympics, but who instead ran in the 400-metre event, not his specialty, and won gold in world-record time.
Here was another link to China, as Liddell returned as a missionary to the land where he was born. After Japan invaded, he chose to stay with his beloved Chinese. He died there in a concentration camp, teaching fellow interns to forgive and love their enemies. To this day, his story continues to spread among millions of Chinese.
Back in 2008, however, few would have thought that Britain’s answer to China’s breathtaking extravanganza would include hymns!
On reflection, that may be more appropriate than at first sight. For sports and Christianity have been closely intertwined in the British Isles over the centuries. And that relationship has profoundly shaped today’s global sports scene, including the Olympics.
Of course, the British did not invent sports. Long before the Greeks competed at the original Olympiads, humans engaged in games–both playful and cruel. Roman games notoriously called for bloodshed, as everyone knows.
But those resourceful ‘islanders’ hosting the current Games did invent, or provide rules for, a major proportion of today’s most popular sports, including tennis, table tennis, badminton, cricket, football, rugby, boxing, golf, horse-racing, hockey and bowls. Oh, and not to forget sailing–the first recorded yacht race was held in 1661 on the Thames River close to the Olympic Stadium, between King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York.
Boxing and football had wild, barbaric precedents. But the British, with their biblically-inspired sense of rule-of-law, codified rules for these and other sports that respected the dignity of the opponent, promoting fair play and making sport enjoyable.
Many of these rules were formulated during the much-villified Victorian era of public morality. But the British were onto a paradox intuitively recognised by sports people all around the world: that freedom and enjoyment are maximised when rules and boundaries are respected. (That’s worth pondering for all areas of life.)
Spread throughout their empire and beyond by British rulers, sailors, missionaries and traders, this commitment to fair-play and integrity was reflected in the Olympic athlete’s oath articulated on Friday evening:
In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.
Much more could be said about British Christianity’s influence on sport–for example, about how respect for God’s creation banned blood sports like bull-baiting, dog-fighting and cock-throwing; and about how Sunday schools birthed such premier league football clubs as Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, and Tottenham Hotspur.
So, as we enjoy these Games, lets give three cheers for the British for giving us rules!
Till next week,
Till next week,