A Discussion with Bishop John Bryson Chane
May 15, 2012
Background: Speaking with Katherine Marshall, Bishop Chane reflected on his long history of engagement with the values underlying the Olympic Games. The context was the June 2012 WFDD co-sponsored symposium on the topic in London, shortly before the London 2012 Games. Chane’s involvement dates from his role as a chaplain to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games and has involved various engagements with both the U.S. and the International Olympic Committees and their Academies. He stresses the core values that inspired the ancient games that included honesty, a celebration of perfection and athletic achievement, and at least a temporary peace among the city states of ancient Greece. Arts, culture, and religion were central to the ancient Olympic Games. Today several of these values are still alive as ideals. But the legacy of a manly toughening and preparedness for war influenced by the modern day founder of the Olympic Movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, still lingers. Intense expressions of nationalism, as seen through the lense of intense competition for medal counts, tend to dominate the modern Olympic Games. Unlike the ancient games, moral issues today, such as the use of performance enhancing drugs and the huge influence that money has on the Games of the twenty-first century, challenge the integrity of the Olympic movement.
How did you get involved with the Olympics in the first place?
It’s a strange story and an unlikely one, since the Olympic Games today, by its Charter, is to be unaffiliated with religion. This in itself is strange since the Olympics in their original form were as much a cultural and religious event as they were about athletic contests. The aim was to bring together the city states of Greece in celebration of life and a search for excellence that had spiritual goals at the center. Thus the exclusion today of religion is something of an anomaly.
My involvement began when, by pure chance, in 1979 I saw an ad in Psychology Today. Why Psychology Today and why was I reading it then? I have no idea. The ad was seeking people with experience as athletes, especially in winter sports, who were bilingual and had a demonstrated professional counseling background to forward their CV to a nondescript post office box at Grand Central Station, New York. Then in April of that year my cathedral colleague notified me that the FBI had been in town, where I was serving as a canon at the Episcopal Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania, doing a pretty thorough background check. I had no idea why and made no connection to the mysterious ad that I had responded to. About a month later I received a letter from the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee informing me that I had been appointed as one of 12 international Olympic Chaplains to serve the athletes at the 1980 Winter Games.
Now this was during the Cold War period, so there were special sensitivities around these particular Games. There were rumors of Communist countries making sure that their athletes were heavily “chaperoned” so there would be no defections to the West. The assignment was for one month, and while I was serving I was assigned to be present and support the U.S. teams, especially figure skating, speed skating, and ice hockey. And what a thrill it was to be with the U.S. ice hockey team during its run to the gold medal. Being in the locker room the night that the team defeated the Russian team was an experience of a lifetime.
During those Winter Games I met many U.S. Olympic officials, and as a result they asked me to become a member of the U.S. Olympic Academy. I served following the Winter Games of 1980 as a consultant to South Korea, Sarajevo, Calgary, and Atlanta, developing a similar athlete support structure. I was honored to have been asked to represent the United States Olympic Committee at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, Greece to author and present a paper entitled “Moral Myopia and Olympic Sport.” There were over 40 international Olympic Committees present at that Academy. In fact the U.S. Olympic Committee, for whatever reason, did not want the paper presented, and they called from Colorado Springs to get the paper stopped. But at the request of the Mayor of the International Olympic Academy I presented it anyway, and it was well received. I continued to work with several other representatives from different Olympic committees on social outreach and athlete care until 1996, when I had a serious racing accident in my Sprint Car, but that’s a different story for another time.
What do you see as the central questions for Olympic values today?
That’s a fascinating and vitally important question, today more than ever. The most basic issues, and the central themes at the International Olympic Academy conference I attended, were fair play, doping, use of drugs, and the negative impact that money was having on the Olympic Games.
Basic honesty is a central value, and always has been. One evening during the Academy at Ancient Olympia, we visited the original site of the ancient Olympic Games by moonlight. There, where the athletes entered the arena, were two rows of carved stone tablets. On one side, carved in the stone tablets were the names of the victors, in track and field and other competitions. On the other side were carved the names of the cheaters. These stone tablets were prominent, so as the athletes entered their competition, they saw vividly the choice before them: honor as a victor, or dishonor as a cheater. So moral issues were prominent from the very beginning of the Games and the city state represented by the cheating athlete became publicly shamed and the athlete discredited.
What do you see as the main ethical issues today?
Of course the basic issue of honesty is still very present today. But the modern games grew from a different ethos. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern games, was concerned that France, his country, was growing flabby and foppish and not very manly. Thus prowess and athletic training and skills were very much part of what he saw as the purpose and values of the games and that translated into physical excellence and honoring the winners. He was highly influenced by the physical education and training programs that emanated from the English Public School system. Being prepared for war, during that time of growing tension among European nations, was a part of the ethos and that meant toughness and aggressiveness. The heart of Pierre de Coubertin is now encased in a memorial at the International Olympic academy in Greece.
But looking back to the ancient games, art, culture, and religion were as much part of the Olympics as athletics. It was not just about competition; there were scholarly works shared, poetry read, exhibitions offered to those who were both participants and observers so that the Olympic Games were a chance to put forward the best of a city state’s culture and achievements. That is also true to a degree of the modern games, and there are countless exhibitions around the Olympics so each nation and especially the host nation can show off its finest aspects. But the spirit of overall excellence has been submerged in athletics today.
What about the Olympic truce? How has the notion of peace associated with the Olympic Games evolved?
Peace was a central part of the ancient games, and all the states were to stop fighting during the time of the competition. All gathered together to compete in a friendly manner, a religious manner, to share the cultural and artistic values of the city states. The ideal was not just a practical peace but also a theological and cultural peace, and creating a new culture of peace as well.
A feature that has unfortunately come to dominate the modern games is competition among nations. The ideals of peace are still part of the core values, but the same spirit of friendly sharing holds less in the modern games. Countries that are at war can pull out of competition. As the modern games were revived, there were war clouds in the air, and bellicose ideals were also a part. There was an ideal that the Olympic peace, the ancient ideal, could be translated to modern times, but how has never been clear.
One of the biggest parts of the ancient games was this coming together. There were tents, where each city state showed off its art, with songs, poetry, statues, and so on. They came to celebrate a common family. Today the games are far more politicized and competition among nations is never far off. There was a time when it was proposed that there be no flags and no playing of national anthems, as nationalism was seen as counter to the goal of peace, but obviously that went by the wayside.
There appears to be some tensions around the Paralympics and the Special Olympics. What do you see that reflecting in terms of core values?
The core issue is that the Olympics are seen as being about perfection. In the ancient games, the ideal was perfection, of the human body, of arts, of poetry, and that carries over into the modern games also.
The difference I see between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics is that the Paralympics focuses more on people who have limitations of the physical body, while the Special Olympics is far broader and looks to people with all kinds of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. They focus on the person, not on the sport. What happens in a 100-yard dash may not be graceful, but it represents remarkable effort and achievement. The Special Olympics set out to honor that.
What both show is that we still have a long way to go, in our hearts and minds, to accept all people. The U.S. has done a reasonable job, but there’s still far to go, and other societies lag far behind. And around the Olympics there still lingers this sense of perfection that is deep seated in the ideals and values.
What about bringing women into the Olympics? Can we describe the original values as masculine in their focus?
This was a struggle in the early modern games, and women were initially not always welcome. Today, though, internationally they are very careful to have gender balance in the governing structures.
In the U.S., women are truly an integral part of the games, and there are conscious efforts to make sure that there is real balance in leadership. This is a tribute to generations of remarkable women athletes. Likewise there has been battle to overcome obstacles around race. But in the U.S. the balance is good today. That is, of course, not true for all countries, and there are tremendous hurdles for women and minority athletes in many countries.
How do you see religious ideals and institutions associated with the Olympics?
The Olympic rings were truly seen, in the past, as sacred. Today the role of religion is much less clear, though values, such as hospitality, which is a core religious value in most traditions, are a central part of the games.
Spiritual values may be taking on more importance. There is increasing recognition that excellence is as much part of the head as the body. Autogenics, psychology, and spirituality are a growing influence.
There are also large spiritual challenges around winning and losing. Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner as a figure skating pair were expected to medal at the Lake Placid Games. Gardner was injured at the very last minute and could not compete. It was as if his life and that of his skating partner were over, almost like experiencing a death. Once unable to compete they became old news. This is an example of what I call a pastoral counseling role in its broadest sense. The emotions involved in losing are very much like death. You are dealing with people who have never known what it is like to lose, who have invested every ounce of their body and spirit in training and preparing for the games. Even if they win there is an emotional letdown, and losing is, as I said, experienced very much as death.
There is much reflection on why some succeed and some fail in their sport, and it has as much to do with psychology as physical training.
So the spirit of competition, and what it means, as an individual or within a group, is a central challenge for the values that underlie the Olympics. Some cannot deal well with it, and there is a dark side to the Olympic spirit and competitive environment. Competition presents fundamental questions of who you are and how you relate to others as well as to yourself. And that is a core spiritual matter.
Who would you look to for insights on the history of Olympic values and on today’s debates on the topic?
There are great historians. One of them is John Lukas, a professor at Penn State. A retired professor of physical education, he is a walking encyclopedia on the modern games, as well as the ancient games. He has raised the issue of the modern values that should be at the core of the Olympics. Another great expert was Robert Paul, a historiographer for the U.S. Olympic Committee. He is internationally known and respected, but sadly died a few years ago.
I was a delegate to the Olympic Academy. It holds an annual conference involving college students and former athletes and Olympic officials. It can be a great resource for WFDD and its Olympic involvement in the Summer Games in London.