Can the Olympics really promote peace and good will?
I was fortunate on Sunday morning to have turned on the TV just in time to see the last few kilometers of this year’s Tour de France, the epic three-week-long cycling competition that ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
The first thing I saw was Bradley Wiggins out in front of the field in the yellow leader’s jersey. As Wiggins had already secured the overall victory in Saturday’s time trials, most of the final stage bringing the riders in to Paris was a formality, except for the eight laps around the Champs-Elysees and the final sprint. I settled in to watch what I figured would be a fitting end, with a triumphant Wiggins crossing the finish line ahead of the group, and in doing so bringing Great Britain its first-ever victory in the Tour.
As they raced closer to the finish line, it suddenly became clear that Wiggins was not going to take the glory of finishing the stage first—he instead was setting up his teammate, fellow Brit and world champion Mark Cavendish, one of the tour’s best sprinters, to be able to fly to the finish line. I confess to getting a little emotional as the commentator cried out, “Bradley Wiggins is [riding] his heart out for his teammate!”
Cavendish, thanks to Wiggins’ help, crossed the finish line first at the Tour’s final stage for a record fourth consecutive year, in one of the most selfless acts I can recall recently witnessing in sports. As I watched the wrap-up coverage, I also saw that I had missed another touching moment earlier in the day: In a great symbol of respect the American George Hincapie, a veteran cyclist riding in his 17th and final Tour de France, was pulled to the front of the field to lead the riders down the Champs-Elysees, a privilege usually reserved for the leading team.
It’s these special moments that enhance the superhuman feats, intense rivalries, and longstanding traditions of sports. We’re now just a few days from the Summer Olympic Games, which open this Friday in London, sure to hold their own amazing upsets, heroic efforts, and last-second finishes. In the spirit of the Games, Pope Benedict recently spoke about his prayers that these games will promote peace and friendship.
It’s not an easy message for the pontiff to deliver, at a time when war is raging in Syria, gun violence has again reared its ugly head in the U.S., and missiles sit on rooftops in London. (Similarly, last month during the Euro 2012 soccer competition, Pope Benedict issued a message talking about the important lessons of fraternity and brotherhood to be learned from sports, in the face of controversy in the host nations of Poland and Ukraine.) Sports are full of doping scandals, match fixing, racism, and, highlighted recently at Penn State, even sexual abuse. The Olympics themselves have seen plenty of incidents that make it seem like international cooperation is merely a dream.
Pope Benedict said he hoped that the “good will generated by this international sporting event may bear fruit, promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the world.” It sounds idealistic and even naïve to think that what happens on the track or in the pool or on the court will really be able to impact complex international political relationships.
But, if Sunday’s display at the Tour de France is any indication, we’ve got plenty of reason to believe that the Olympics will still be able to show us that good will is possible at the international level—at least in the realm of sports.