Caution Against Turning Olympic Athletes into Idols

The author’s daughter watches Suni Lee in the team women’s gymnastics competition last month. Photo: Becca Hartman-Pickerill

The Bible's Ten Commandments are a pretty straightforward framework for right living for Christians like me, with gratitude to their Jewish origins, though the Great Commandment discussed in Matthew, Mark and Luke, drawing on Deuteronomy, better reflect how I strive to live my life, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

Still, as a fan of U.S. Women’s gymnastics, it is the first commandment that keeps ringing in my mind. In Exodus 20:3,5 of the Bible (NRSV), God speaks to God’s people, “you shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”. Why would God need to remind God’s people to not worship idols or worship anything before God? The answer is fairly obvious - because we keep doing it!

Enough has been publicly discussed about Ms. Biles (though I am grateful that with social media I get to hear from her on her own terms), and all I really want to say is thank you for sharing your gifts with the world. Thank you for sharing your phenomenal talent on the balance beam, uneven bars, vault, and floor, of course, and your leadership in cultivating a team atmosphere in which young women help to lift one another up, and your hard-won bravery in being publicly human, and a young Black woman, with the eyes of the world on you.

I grew up in Green Bay, Wis., where we say the Packers are our second religion. I know the strength that kind of ritual can bring to a community (economic, sense of team), and the costs, including a rise in domestic violence after losses. Add to that equation consumerism that confuses people and profits, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and in the case of the Olympics, a pandemic, and it becomes difficult to keep the Ten Commandments or the Great Commandment.

Our human tendency to lift up excellence – physical, moral, etc. – and reify the person who displayed that excellence, is clearly rooted in our own psychology, but religion has something to teach us if we’re interested in a kinder world. I am reminded of the Zen Buddhist koan (sayings, teaching) that the Dharma (teachings, practices) are like a finger pointing to the moon; should we focused too intently on the finger, we miss the moon. And again I am reminded of a teaching that my colleague Noah shared recently through a line in the poem “Between” by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “God is not in me / not in you / but between us.” Could we begin to honor the relationship, the interaction, the in between, even amongst our most lauded national figures? Could we begin to prioritize community, not just individual, in the national psyche?

Any time I find myself, or observe my neighbors, looking at our fingers, forgetting that God is in our interaction and relationship, making unchanging idols of anyone or anything, I come back to these teachings. When Sunisa Lee was competing in the women’s all around, my children and I cheered her on through the screen, telling her that we didn’t want her perfect and were grateful for her excellence. The world clambering to celebrate her wasn’t great for her in the midst of the competition. You might see a pattern here.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.