Last month I carried the Olympic Torch; the crowd cheered and I felt great! OK, so it was a torch from the 1948 Games and ‘the crowd’ was the Sunday morning congregation, gathered for a sports-themed all-age service. Yet, in that village church in rural Somerset, the excitement was both tangible and audible.
The torch’s owner, an unassuming man now in his 80s, was delighted – if a little, overwhelmed – by the attention as young and old alike took turns to ‘parade’ this iconic symbol up and down the aisle. A few days earlier the 2012 Torch had passed by my office window. And despite this being a ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ event, our community turned out in force to welcome the bearers and the attendant security entourage.
Not quite so quickly, but just as inevitably, the Games themselves will come and go. Courtesy of the participants, there will be achievements and disappointments; courtesy of the media there will drama and controversy – real and contrived – and in the heart of East London there will be a legacy to assess. This will probably be reported in terms of quantifiable resources – buildings, infra-structure and regeneration – but the legacy will go deeper. And that aspect of the legacy will be assessed when the ‘so what’ questions are aired and the critical reflections about lives changed and communities transformed are reviewed.
Those who live and those who minister in and around the area that will be the focus of the world’s media attention have expectations about the aftermath of The Games. Inevitably some of these are unrealistic – dreams that are bound not to come true; but others will come to fruition, sooner or later, and the energy, commitment and unfailing presence of those who, from the outset, determined to deliver something lasting as part of their Christian responsibility and witness, should be applauded.
The message of faith-driven engagement has not gone unheeded, and neither has the manner – gracious in its determination, caring and courteous in its outworking – in which that engagement, at so many different levels, has been delivered.
The lessons drawn from the whole, massive, overwhelming experience of preparing for The Games and preparing for beyond The Games, will resonate for months and probably years to come. But what of the considerable efforts of the many representatives of the Christian communities, without whose investment so much would either not have been achieved or would have been of a lesser order?
I was a minor contributor to a church-led collaborative venture around the Atlanta Games of 1996. It was the first occasion in living memory that all the Christian denominations with places of worship within the city (totalling over 30) co-operated in the planning and delivery of a mission-focussed initiative. Hospitality, prayer and study groups, free water hand-outs – the projects under the one umbrella of ‘Quest Atlanta’ were diverse but shared a clear, common message of service through caring concern. But it did not end there.
Once the Olympic ‘circus’ had moved on and the last sponsored cola can was swept away, the churches continued in fellowship. The expressions of that fellowship remained diverse but a bond had been established and one that would not easily be undone.
For many reasons what was created in Atlanta, and, to a degree, repeated in Sydney, needed to be re-fashioned, given the many changes of the past decade, not least in terms of technological development and media opportunities. But the concept of an ‘umbrella’ of united Christian witness focussed around the Olympics and Paralympics has survived – and, indeed, has thrived.
Today the opportunities to engage ‘in real time’ via the internet, through dedicated, interactive websites, by harnessing social media and packaging news and feature for broadcasting, are myriad. And all this is enabled by the co-operation of committed Christians, many of whom offer their professional services at little or no cost. The impact is remarkable, crossing national, cultural and faith boundaries – largely because these days in the world of web and wi-fi such boundaries largely go unrecognised.
From tonight the messages that will be pour out of the media centres will cover and comment upon the miraculous and the minutia. Yet woven within that fabric of news and insights will be those prepared to publicly share a passion for sport with a passion for their Christian faith and it is their messages that, for some, may prove to be the most lasting of legacies.
Canon Brian Pearson is a non-executive director of ‘2Kplus International Sports Media’ and author of ‘A Sporting Month with 2Kplus’, recently published by Wild Duck Productions, priced £2-99