After the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canadian churches felt they’d missed the boat and could have done much more to engage. How can we make the most of the greatest show on earth when it comes to Britain next year?
On 6 July 2005 Trafalgar Square played host to scenes of wild celebration. Elite athletes mixed with excited fans as it was announced that the Games of the XXX Olympiad (the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics to you and me) would be held in London. The capital was to become the first city to host the Games for a third time. But the excitement was soon forgotten. A day later the city was the focus of the world’s attention for all the wrong reasons as terrorists attacked the London transport system. Fifty two members of the public, and four suicide bombers, were killed by bombs on the buses and tubes. Soon after that, the now well rehearsed arguments against the Olympics began to surface. Why should we pay for such an extravagant event? What about the disruption to the daily lives of local people? Why should those who don’t care about sport have it foisted upon them? It was an inauspicious start for the London 2012 Games. The financial crisis didn’t help, with more concerns about how much was being spent and whether we could afford it. But slowly and surely as the summer of 2012 has approached, excitement levels have grown – 1.8 million people applied for tickets, and 20 million have already been allocated. With a year to go, reservations are being put on the back-burner. The biggest controversy that remains is the number of people who didn’t get tickets. As Olympic fever takes hold and the national mood turns once more to jubilant optimism, the inevitable question is: what, if anything, can the Church do to get in on the act? How can we be play a positive part in the biggest cultural event of next year? The sky’s the limit Local Christian organisations and churches have made a concerted effort to be involved since the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Peter Meadows, spokesperson for More Than Gold, an umbrella organisation of Christians which is trying to get Christians involved in all aspects of the Games, says their mission was crystallised by a visit to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last year. ‘The story we heard time and again was church leaders saying, “If only I’d known it was going to be like this, we’d have been involved. We’ve really missed the boat.” So we’re just flat out, trying to minimise that happening here. This is the greatest opportunity for churches to engage with their communities in living memory.’ So what kind of thing can churches do? Meadows says the sky’s the limit. ‘The opportunity is much less about sport than community engagement...Putting bunting up, showing hospitality on the streets, giving cold water out to visitors, funding portaloos, having drop-in centres...’ The list of churches and Christian groups working together under the More Than Gold banner is impressive. The urgency of preparing for a looming event means those from many different traditions are mucking in together. Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the Methodist Church, picks up the theme: ‘We’ve got a shared vision, we feel we can work together...what a wonderful opportunity the Olympics is for groups of churches all over the country.’ His message is echoed by James Parker, the Catholic coordinator for the Games: ‘More than ever before it’s vital that we’re seen to be united in our witness... It’s important that the Church is seen to be relevant, but also full of the Spirit and ready to have a good time.’ A month long Royal Wedding Of course, the organisers have been busy trying to persuade us that the Olympics is truly national. There’s some truth in this, with football matches taking place in Glasgow, Cardiff, Newcastle, Coventry and Manchester. Other events will happen in Kent, Berkshire, Essex and Dorset. But to all intents and purposes, it’s a London event. This means there are different ways in which churches can engage. Those based in East London will have the most obvious opportunities, being so close to the main Olympic village, stadium and other facilities. But other parts of London will have events too, and those visiting during the Games will stay all over the city. The major transport hubs will be busier than ever, and every hotel, hostel and guest house will be full. Churches in other parts of the country may not be interacting with competitors and fans, but there will still be a big opportunity to minister to the local community. Meadows says the level of excitement in most local communities will be akin to a month-long version of the Royal Wedding. ‘Churches can run their own celebrations for the opening and closing ceremonies with children’s fun events, a big screen in a local park, a hog roast in the evening with music... How about running a sports quiz, a school assembly, or even your school holiday club with an Olympic theme?’ So far so good – it sounds like the 2012 Olympics is going to be one big festival of evangelism, social action and sporting excellence. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. There are some major concerns ahead of the Games. Corporate takeover With many fans missing out on tickets for all of their chosen events, the ballot system has been heavily criticised. It seems many of the cheaper tickets have been oversubscribed, meaning those able to afford the expensive seats stood a much better chance of landing the ones they wanted. Large swathes of seats for the showpiece events had already been taken by corporate sponsors. The cost of running the Olympics has been picked up partly by the taxpayer and the National Lottery, and partly by ticket sales. But, as ever, a large chunk of the cash is coming from corporate sponsors. The likes of Samsung, Lloyds TSB and Coca-Cola recently defended their role in the Games to The Guardian after being accused of monopolising the torch relay with their branding. There is much talk of the Olympic spirit, and the ideals embodied by the Games. But a quick perusal of the list of sponsors shows banks, fastfood manufacturers, and companies with dubious human rights records. Olympic volunteers’ outfits will be branded with logos, tickets can only be bought with a Visa card, while representatives of the sponsors themselves often appear in public alongside organiser Lord Coe. So how should we feel about this corporate takeover? That’s the way every major international sporting event is now organised. But despite the moneymaking machine moving in, Christians can be the salt and light at the Games, and bring a human face to the many visitors who’ll have their senses assaulted with corporate branding everywhere they turn. Former Labour MP Andy Reed now spends his time working with Bible Society, the Evangelical Alliance and various sports associations. He says there’s still much to admire in the spirit of the Games: ‘The Games does cost a great deal to host. The corporate sponsorship helps pay the bills, but I hope the organisers have got the balance right. I know they have really tried to make this a People’s Games and there is an emphasis on young people. The Olympic ideals are things we can celebrate.’ Human trafficking Another major concern ahead of the Games is people trafficking. Other large sporting events such as the football World Cup have seen increases in the number of women brought into a country for sexual exploitation. This is thought to be a risk for 2012. In addition, the demand for hotels, restaurants and other hospitality services will lead to an increase in unscrupulous employers looking for cheap labour. This is fertile ground for people traffickers. Christianity columnist Steve Chalke, who heads up Christian anti-trafficking organisation Stop the Traffik, says it’s a real worry: ‘There has never been a more vital moment for us to work together to put an end to the misery of human trafficking. This crime is growing and 2012 is on our doorstep.’ However, he’s not despondent, choosing to see the Games as a chance to highlight and tackle some of the hidden issues around trafficking: ‘There has never been a better moment for us to build safe communities, free from the menace of those who trade in the sale of people.’ Stop the Traffik has launched a campaign to ensure exploitation of people is prevented, and is calling for churches to be the loudest campaigners. Find more information at stopthetraffik.org Lives changed? So, there’s a year to go. The athletes’ training schedules are in place, the stadium is built and the excitement is growing. Whether you’re a sports nut, a casual observer, or someone who would only run if you were going to miss the bus, there’s something in the Olympics for you. Meadows says it’s a simple choice we’ve got: ‘The party is going to be going on, but will the Church be standing askance, or will it be hosting it?’ Reed agrees: ‘The Olympics will be the focus of the nation for six weeks in 2012. Our culture will be dominated by it and the news of what is happening. The Olympics is the biggest show on earth. If Christians are engaged then we will “get the Olympics” like everybody else.’ The event really is a once-in-alifetime experience for those taking part and watching. But just imagine how much more important it would be if they could experience the love and grace of the British Church while they were on our shores. Lives could be changed forever. Let’s not miss the opportunity.