The Summer Games have begun. Originally a local event dedicated to the gods of Mount Olympus, the modern games gather the best athletes of the whole world.
I went to high school with a future Olympic athlete. His name was David Berger. He was a weightlifter. We lost touch after graduation, but I heard on the news that he made the Olympic team in 1972.
The Olympics were still amateur events, but they had moved beyond their original ideals to the extent that nationalism, politics and ideology were influencing them.
Olympic history records the controversy over Jim Thorpe's amateur status, and the loss of his two 1912 gold medals in track and field because he once played semipro baseball. The world remembers that the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were designed as an international showcase for Nazi propaganda, and we still applaud the four gold medal victories of Jesse Owens that so visibly inflamed the Fuhrer. Politics! Folks still debate whether the Olympic boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles dimmed the luster of the medals in 1980 and 1984.
The film "Chariots of Fire" celebrated how Eric Liddell, a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) missionary, refused to compete on the Sabbath. Some called him unpatriotic, but others called him a "true man of principle" because he placed his loyalties to God above those to king and country. But that was 1924. Today's Olympics are international and interfaith, and competitions will be scheduled on everybody's holy days. In 2008, it would startle us if anybody refused to compete for religious reasons.
Today's Olympics have lost some of their innocence because of professionalism, corporate endorsements, drug violations, political posturing, nationalism and the publicized partiality of some officials. (It is ironic that a local television outlet is promoting their Olympic coverage using the theme music from "Pirates of the Caribbean.") But I owe my personal lack of "Olympic spirit" to my friend David Berger.
David donned his team uniform in 1972 and went to Munich, but he wasn't wearing the colors of our stars and stripes. He held dual citizenship with Israel. He didn't win any medals. He died in the explosion of a helicopter on the tarmac of the airport with other hostages and terrorists. It wasn't because of his politics, either. It was because of where his faith had carried him. Pardon me if I have stopped cheering. Praying seems more appropriate.
The Rev. John Herman is pastor of Desert Palm United Church of Christ, 1230 E. Guadalupe Road, Tempe.