Mark McCormack (United States) on Why the Olympic Games Should Come to Murfreesboro

August 2, 2012

As I write this essay, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been forced by a successful anti–Muslim community petition to halt construction on a new community center. This petition is the culmination of a two–year campaign to stifle Islam in mid-Tennessee and is only a single instance of the seemingly ubiquitous religious intolerance that continues to plague the United States. Such religiously divided communities, I argue, could stand to benefit from the Olympic values of diversity and “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play,” as outlined in the Olympic Charter.
A considerable proportion of the Olympic athletes this summer will be religious people of varying persuasions. The Olympic organizers will be prepared for this, of course, with carefully planned religious accommodations such as spaces carved out for religious uses. Perhaps more important, and less discussed, will be the potential implications of the peaceful interfaith encounters on the Olympic fields for interfaith relations in communities across the world. The Olympics’ explicit attention to and appreciation for respect and diversity, including religious identities, should serve as a model for communities focused on alleviating interfaith tensions and enhancing interfaith relations.

The intersection of sport and interfaith relations is nothing new. The Interfaith Council here at Vanderbilt University hosts an interfaith soccer match every year. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core uses sports as a method for bringing together young people from diverse faith traditions. The potential for sports as one dimension of improved interfaith relations, then, has been and continues to be explored and discussed within interfaith circles. I propose that the Olympic Games, as an enduring symbol of harmony and respect for human diversity, can (and should) meaningfully contribute to this conversation moving forward by creating and providing community resources and guides for initiating effective interfaith sport conversations.

To this end, existing Olympic community resources should be enhanced with explicit reference to religious diversity and interfaith relations. More specifically, the Olympic values, as they are put forth as a programming tool for structuring community sporting events and organizations across the world, should expressly draw attention to the implications of “excellence, respect, and friendship” for the interfaith sports encounter, and the effectiveness of these values in engendering improved interfaith relations. Sports organizations and teams, from little league baseball to high school gymnastics to professional hockey should be provided with models for effectively initiating interfaith conversations in the context of sports competition, whenever and wherever religious conflict arises. This requires that we work to develop a language for understanding and talking about what sports means to people of different faiths, and about our common and different religious values within sports settings. It also requires that sports organizations and officials take seriously the demand to become educated on religious diversity and sensitivity and on the implications of religious diversity for sports participation.

In these ways, and perhaps others, the Olympics could come to Murfreesboro, TN, and make a lasting, meaningful difference.
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