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After the past 18 months, the Olympics is the golden moment of joy we all needed
All eyes are on Tokyo right now, as tens of millions of people tune in around the world to watch feats of athleticism that leave us stunned. The airwaves and the internet are full of commendations of good sportsmanship, feel-good stories of triumph over adversity, and endless analyses of the victories (and defeats) of the world’s elite athletes.
I’m always glad to hear about what people have overcome and to marvel at the incredible things the human body is capable of. But as I watch hour after hour of sprinting and swimming and fighting and flipping, what keeps me coming back isn’t the amazing competitions.
It’s the joy.
It’s Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shouting and embracing when they learned that each of them won the gold medal they’d been pursuing for years. The two are dear friends who supported each other through what ought to have been career-ending injuries, who greeted each other with delight at every event where they were competitors, who wept on one another’s shoulders. Tamberi even traveled to Sweden to attend Barshim’s wedding. And when they tied in the high jump and learned that they could share the medal, their joy stemmed not just in their own success, but in the success of a friend who’d become like a brother.
It’s MyKayla Skinner, who thought she was retired from gymnastics after two Olympics without a medal but found herself scheduled to vault and came away with the silver.
It’s Elaine Thompson-Herah screaming and falling to the ground after winning a second straight gold in the 100-meter dash as she led a Jamaican sweep of the event.
It’s South African Tatjana Schoenmaker surrounded by her opponents who swam over to rejoice with her after she set a new world record in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke.
It’s Hidilyn Diaz winning the first ever gold medal for the Philippines and holding up her Miraculous Medal as she praised God for her victory.
It’s Alessandra Perilli crying on the podium after she won a medal in target shooting for San Marino, making it the smallest country ever to win an Olympic medal.
It’s gymnast Danusia Francis of Jamaica, who was injured and couldn’t complete her routine but left the floor with a radiant smile, thrilled just to have been an Olympian.
It’s Seward, Alaska, erupting with joy, dozens of teenage boys jumping up and down, as their friend Lydia Jacoby (just 17 years old) won the gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.
It’s the Fijian men’s rugby team singing a hymn of praise with tears streaming down their cheeks, and the Kiwi women’s rugby team rejoicing with a traditional Māori haka.
It’s swimmer Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui, baffled by his unexpected gold in the 400 freestyle.
It’s Caeleb Dressel and his wife weeping thousands of miles apart after he won a gold medal in the men’s 100-meter freestyle.
It’s every “first ever,” every underdog, every fencer flinging off her helmet, every fist pumped, every weeping mother, every thrilled hometown.
After the last 18 months, I needed an Olympics. The world needed an Olympics. We needed to love our countries a little more. We needed to care about nations we’d forgotten in our own grief and fear and confusion. We needed to feel united after a season of such division.
But above all, we needed joy. Pure, radiant, unabashed joy. We needed to see the athletes delight in their victory (whether or not it ended in a medal). We needed to hope and triumph and even feel devastated by something that doesn’t carry the weight that so many defeats of 2020 and 2021 did. We needed to discover a sport we’d never heard of and now suddenly find ourselves rooting for an underdog and jumping up from our spot on the couch to cheer for his victory.
This is why I love the Olympics: It reminds me to rejoice. It reminds me that joy is a choice. It fills me with wonder at creation, at the human family, at my own capacity to exult in somebody else’s triumph.
Joy isn’t always delight. Joy is far more akin to hope than to happiness — the conviction that God is for you regardless of your circumstances. It’s a discipline, a choice to fix our eyes on Jesus who is working even when we can’t see it.
But it becomes easier to trust in that way when we’ve exercised our joy muscles, so to speak, when we’ve sought out beauty and wonder and delight, when we’ve reeducated our cynical, suspicious, pessimistic minds by filling them with joy.
This is why Paul tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom 12:15). In part, it’s an exhortation to support those who are celebrating, not to be so consumed by envy or self-pity or anxiety that we’re unable to acknowledge others’ joy. But it’s also a bit of practical advice: When we rejoice in others’ joy, we become more able to find joy in every moment. We begin to trust that joy is possible, even in our darkness. And whatever the cause of our joy, joy always reorients the heart to the one who made us for joy and delights in us. Joy is an act of resistance, an act of hope, an act of heroic virtue. Even when it’s Olympic joy.
As the Olympics wind down, do your soul a favor: tune in for some of the joy. Watch the primetime broadcasts, or just take a minute to practice rejoicing with those who rejoice. After the last 18 months, we could all use it.
Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a Catholic author and speaker. Visit her website at piercedhands.com.