Saturday, 4 August 2012

Helping Hands: An Olympic Spirit

A mother, wishing to encourage her son's progress at the piano, bought tickets to a performance by the great Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski. When the evening arrived, they found their seats near the front of the concert hall and eyed the majestic Steinway waiting on the stage. Soon the mother found a friend to talk to, and the boy slipped away.

At eight o'clock, the lights in the auditorium began to dim, the spotlights came on, and only then did they notice the boy - up on the piano bench, innocently picking out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." His mother gasped in shock and embarrassment but, before she could retrieve her son, the master himself appeared on the stage and quickly moved to the keyboard.

He whispered gently to the boy, "Don't quit. Keep playing." Leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in the bass part. Soon his right arm reached around the other side and improvised a delightful obligato. Together, the old master and the young novice held the crowd mesmerized with their blended and beautiful music...

In all our lives, we receive helping hands - some we notice, some we don't. Equally we ourselves have countless opportunites to provide helping hands - sometimes we would like our assistance to be noticed, sometimes we don't. Little of what we all achieve is without learning from others and without support from others and what we receive we should hand out.

We are well and truly into the Olympics now...are you enjoying it? I am I'm a real sucker for the emotion of it all...Last night was another memorable thing so many of the British medallists have all acknowledge is the helping hand that crowd cheering them on has made...and the helping hands there coaches and friends and families have offered...yes these young people sacrifice a lot for glory, but then so do many others to help them achieve this glory... 

I am a great lover of the Olympics and sport in general. I was a bit of a sport nut as a kid, although I would never claim to have been any good at it. I was never born to run. As a child I would soak up the whole of the two weeks. As I shared in a previous blog my mum use to always tell the story of the 1976 Montreal Olympics and of her waking me to watch Brendan Foster compete in the and win bronze at the Montreal Games. I am told that I wept because he did not win. Did you know that this was Britain’s only athletics medal at these games.

 This though was not really my first Olympic memory as I don’t really recall this event, I was after all half asleep. My first real Olympic memories are from Moscow in 1980. I do remember clearly Ovett and Coe, Daley Thompson, Alan Welles and Duncan Goodhew and others too. I also have vivid memories of Los Angeles in 1984. Yes as a child I had a real love of the Olympics and the Olympic spirit...I wonder what your greatest memories are...

I have less vivid memories of the Olympics of my young adult life. I think if I look back honestly this was a time when I began to be more cynical about life. I began to see what was wrong with the Olympics the drug cheats, the overt commercialism, the professionalism, the politics, the double standards.

That said there is one memory that still stands out even in those dark cynical days; a memory that is etched permanently on my psyche. I have vivid memories of Barcelona in 1992. Strangely it’s not the successes that stand out, such as Sally Gunnel or even Linford Christie, instead it is a memory of an apparent failure and the courage that accompanied it that I remember. It is the memory of a man who went out in the semi-finals of his event; no he didn’t even reach the final. My memory is of Derek Redmond. Does anybody else remember Derek Redmond?

Derek Redmond had dreamed all of his life of competing in and winning Olympic gold and in 1992 he was attempting to fulfil this dream. He was in the shape of his life and as the gun went off in the semi-final he made a great start. Half way round he was in the perfect position to qualify for the final. Suddenly he heard a pop and felt excruciating pain at the back of his leg; he collapsed in a heap face down on the track. Afterwards he said at first he thought he had been shot. Of course he had not he had in fact torn his hamstring.

Then something remarkable happened he pulled himself to his feet and began to hobble forward. He was determined to finish because as he said himself "it was the Olympic semi-final". So he began to hobble in excruciating agony towards the finish line. Officials attempted to intervene, but he pushed them aside, he was determined to finish.

As Redmond turned towards the home straight an overweight middle aged man appeared from the side. A comical figure wearing the strange t-shirt which read “Have you hugged your feet today?”  He pushed aside a security guard (I wonder what would happen if someone did that in this day and age) and ran towards the hobbling figure embracing him.

 The man was Jim Redmond, Derek’s father. As he held his weeping son he said to him “You don’t have to do this”. Derek answered “Yes I do”. To which Jim replied “Well then we’re going to finish this together.” Which of course they did pushing aside all who tried to stand in their way. They reached the finish line together Derek’s head resting on his father’s shoulder. As they crossed the line the whole stadium rose to them and cheered and wept, while the rest of the world looked on in stunned amazement.

While Derek Redmond may not have fulfilled his dream of winning Olympic Gold he did walk away with the whole world by his side. Of all my Olympic memories this is perhaps the strongest the most vivid. It is not an image of success in the conventional sense. Yes it is an image of will and determination, but it is somehow more than that. It is an image of love. To offer a helping hand to someone in need is the greatest manifestation of love. This is spiritual love. This is Agape.

To me this is the whole purpose of the religious life, to offer the helping hand of love in the time of need. Now for some this is purely a human hand; whereas for others of us it is more than this. I have leant on many people and I have been supported through many of my own troubles in my life as I have offered support to others too. That said I know I am sustained by more than a human hand. I feel the support of that power that runs through all of life, the eternal and everlasting love of God. Some days I feel this very intensely on other days less so. I do not see this as a distinct power separate from life. I see this power in operation as we hold out the helping hand of love to one another and yet I know that it is somehow more than that.

There is something amazing that occurs in that space that can only be filled by love.

Religion, spirituality and certainly ritualism has always been a central theme of the Olympics, both ancient and modern. This is evident not only in the build up and opening ceremony but in the conducting of the games themselves. The Olympics has never been an entirely secular affair. From the outset the five day festival, when all conflict would cease, brought the Greek world together in devotion to the one God.

When the Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin they quickly began to take on their own quasi-religious rituals. Ceremonies were borrowed from the ancient festivals. The ideal was non-sectarian and was an attempt to develop a transcendent Olympian spirit that united athletes from all over the world. Many have described it as a kind of “civil religion”, as it transcended any particular religion.This is a spirit that still remains despite the commercialism of modern times.

Over the last 100 years the International Olympic Committee have developed a kind of Olympianism, often paying homage to the ritualism of ancient days. Gold medals, with the image of Nike the goddess of victory imprinted upon them, were introduced in 1928. The torch relay dates back to the 1936 Berlin Games and was an obvious attempt to link the German state with the ancient Greek state. I have loved watching the torch travel around Britain in the last few weeks. I have seen it myself on three occasions.  That said it is important to recognise that there is darkness in its the history.

Now of course much has changed in the last 2,000 years. Today worship in many diverse forms is central to the many faiths present at the Olympic games. At the current games this diversity is being catered for by 193 different chaplains, a prayer room at every venue and a multi-faith centre in the Olympic village.

 For the devoutly religious the modern Olympic schedule can be a real struggle. I’m sure that we can all remember Eric Liddle, of Chariots of Fire fame refusing to run on the Sabbath and modern day Christians and Jews still face this dilemma. Muslim athletes are faced with a dilemma at the current Olympics as it falls right in the middle of Ramadam, when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the day light hours. Clerics have extended an exemption to athletes during this time, allowing them to make up for the fast at a later date. Many athletes, including Mo Farrah, have taken up the exemption while others are fasting. 

One feature of the current Olympics has been the inclusion, for the first time, of women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. They are the last Arab states to allow women to compete. We have come a long way from the ancient Olympics when only men were allowed to compete and watch.

Religion, spirituality and certainly ritualism have always been a central theme of the Olympics, both ancient and modern. This is evident not only in the torch relay that builds towards the opening ceremony but in the conducting of the games themselves. The Olympic spirit though transcends all of these rituals, as important as they are. It’s not so much found in that magnificent torch burning brightly in the Olympic stadium. No instead I think it is found burning inside the hearts and souls of all those competing and all those supporting them and perhaps more importantly in those ready to offer a helping hand should anyone fall.
Of course this not something that is unique to the Olympics or the Olympic spirit. It is, I believe, a message for all of us in our everyday lives. If I have learnt anything about matters of the spirit I have learnt that truly it is all about relationships. It is about developing deep and intimate relationships with ourselves, with others and with whatever it is that we believe is at the core of all of this. For me this is God, others call it something else.

What is at the core of all that you do, what holds and sustains you in your daily interactions? What helps you get up when you fall? Who or what do you lean on when the journey seems too much for you?

To truly live religiously to is live to our full potential. The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. This we are told is the Olympic spirit. But is it? I am not convinced. I believe it is more than this. Surely it is also about lifting one another up and helping one another to reach our full potential too. Isn’t it about offering one another a helping hand, just when we need it the most?


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