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The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle… – Baron Pierre de Coubertin
Did you watch—or maybe even attend—the Rio Olympics? I sure watched enthusiastically.
I think I initially got hooked watching the Olympics when they were held in Beijing in 2008, and when the Portuguese Baha’i athlete Nelson Evora won the Gold Medal in the Triple Jump. The joy on Nelson’s face as he carried his country’s flag around the arena went far beyond mere triumph in an athletic contest—it was a deep spiritual joy, from his heart, radiant and transcendent. You can see it here.
That pure joy, born of years of struggle and trial to attain a goal, is one of the most beautiful human emotions.
I should admit that I’m not normally a sports fan, and that I generally don’t get much out of watching athletes perform or compete, whether individually or as part of a team. I’d rather actually do something physical than be a spectator. On Super Bowl Sunday, for example, or during the World Cup, my wife and I have a tradition of taking a hike. While everyone else is home glued to their televisions or their computers, we’re out in nature, usually completely alone and happy as can be. On those days, the trails are always empty.
But I’ll also admit that, for some reason, I do really enjoy watching the Olympics every two years, and would even attend if I could. I’ve thought about why, and I think it’s because the Olympics exemplify a sense of global unity, understanding and peace.
The opening ceremony, where the athletes come into the stadium in national groups, has such a beautiful contrast with the closing ceremony, where the athletes all enter together. I love watching athletes from various nations compete, and that the competition recognizes achievement and excellence not only for the winners, but for the second- and third-place finishers, too. The Olympics always inspire me—and judging from the TV ratings, they inspire millions of others, as well.
The ancient Olympics began in Greece in the 8th Century BC, with athletic competitions, chariot races and even a few sacrifices. When the Romans conquered most Greek territory in the 3rd Century AD, however, they banned “pagan cults and practices,” which included the ancient Olympics.
In the 19th Century, several European nations—Greece, England and France—re-awakened the Olympic ideal. You probably already know that—but you might not know that the modern Olympic movement has quite a shared timeline with the advent of the Baha’i Faith. In the mid-1860s, during the exact same period when the Baha’i Faith began, England started holding what it called a “Grand Olympic Festival,” intended to revive the best parts of the ancient Greek tradition and do so internationally by extending a global invitation to all amateur athletes. At about the same time, Greece held its first modern Olympic Games in Athens, to celebrate the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. Then, in the 1890s, the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee, and the IOC held the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece in 1896—just four years after the passing of Baha’u’llah. Baron de Coubertin said that he wanted to revive the old mythical Greek idea of a “sacred truce” during the Games, symbolized by the torch and the eternal flame, which would promote world peace and cross-cultural understanding.
Why did the modern Olympic Games come about when they did? What inspired those who expended so much effort to establish them? Which underlying social currents prompted the world’s nations to begin supporting the movement? The Baha’i teachings may explain at least one of the major underlying reasons—the appearance of a new prophet and the revelation of a new set of spiritual teachings that emphasize the oneness of humanity and world peace.
Baha’is firmly believe that Baha’u’llah’s influence on the world extends to every sector of human society. That’s what happens when a new revelation appears. Like the sun rising, renewing the power of the Word of God results in the release of enormous potentialities. Essentially a mystical process, that compelling flood of new ideas, concepts and forces accompanies the advent of every new prophet of God:
As to the influence of holy Beings and the continuance of Their grace to mankind after They have put away Their human form, this is, to Baha’is, an indisputable fact. Indeed, the flooding grace, the streaming splendours of the holy Manifestations appear after Their ascension from this world. The exaltation of the Word, the revelation of the power of God, the conversion of God-fearing souls, the bestowal of everlasting life — it was following the Messiah’s martyrdom that all these were increased and intensified. In the same way, ever since the ascension of [Baha’u’llah], the bestowals have been more abundant, the spreading light is brighter, the tokens of the Lord’s might are more powerful, the influence of the Word is much stronger, and it will not be long before the motion, the heat, the brilliance, the blessings of the Sun of His reality will encompass all the earth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 64.
These mysterious forces, invisible at first and undetectable to most, gradually gain strength as the new era becomes more and more visible and pronounced. Few are awake to view the morning sun’s first rays of light, but almost everyone acknowledges the power of the sun at noon:
God leaves not His children comfortless, but, when the darkness of winter overshadows them, then again He sends His Messengers, the Prophets, with a renewal of the blessed spring. The Sun of Truth appears again on the horizon of the world shining into the eyes of those who sleep, awaking them to behold the glory of a new dawn. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 33.
So when I watch the Olympics these days, that truly global gathering makes me want to celebrate the newly-emerging unity of the peoples of our planet, and to realize how much closer we get, every day, to Baha’u’llah’s vision of peace and oneness:
Today the inhabitants of the world must be engaged generally in praising the Word of God, which has bestowed such a bounty and has established such a harmony and affiliation that the Beloved of the union of the race of man has uncovered the face, displaying the utmost beauty and perfection in the assemblages of the world, and is captivating the hearts of everyone in all the regions. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 1, p. 12.