Olympic controversies

What’s the story?

The 2016 Summer Olympics begin on 5th August, bringing the world’s greatest sporting event to Rio, Brazil. But while the event will again try to showcase the world’s best sportspeople and demonstrate positive values in sport, it’s in danger of being overshadowed by two separate crises.

What’s happening?

207 nations will participate in the Rio Olympic Games, but for a while it had seemed like that number could and indeed should drop by one. The doping scandal which has rocked Russian sport had led many commentators to predict that the nation would suffer a total exclusion from the Games. That hasn’t happened, although many Russian competitors may find themselves banned after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to leave the decision to the federations behind each individual sport.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were dismayed by the IOC’s decision to reject their recommendation of a blanket ban, given after widespread evidence of “state-run” performance enhancing drug abuse was found across Russian sport. The decision also means that Russian runner Yulia Stepanova, the whistle-blower whose evidence was used to uncover the scandal, will neither be able to compete for her own country or enter as an independent athlete.

At the same time, the Games are also threatened by the shadow of the Zika virus – a mosquito-borne disease which is currently mid-outbreak in Brazil. While the virus is usually mostly harmless, it can have a catastrophic effect if transmitted to pregnant women, who can suffer foetal abnormalities as a result. Concerned by the spread of the virus, a number of high-profile sportspeople have pulled out of the Games, including many of the world’s top golfers.

Even this isn’t the end of Rio’s problems. There have been serious concerns raised about security for the event, after official figures revealed over 2,000 murders in Rio in the first four months of 2016, and the Athlete’s village was declared ‘unsafe’ and ‘unliveable’ by IOC officials just two weeks before it was due to open. In the midst of political and financial instability in Brazil, it’s no wonder that the IOC were seriously considering postponing or moving the Games earlier this year.

Despite all the controversy, the world will be watching when the Games begin, and hoping that somehow all the setbacks and serious issues can be overcome. The Olympics are founded on the core values of Friendship, Respect and Excellence (see below), and while the issues surrounding the Games are manifold and serious, the hope is that these values will still be transmitted to a watching world through 16 days of incredible, memorable sport.

What have others been saying?

The New York Times famously ran this piece in June, calling the Rio Olympics “an unnatural disaster”.

The Guardian have produced an in-depth report to how Rio has been (and will be) affected by being awarded the Games – this could be a great asset if you want to pray for the city during the Olympics.

Harry Farley at Christian Today has five great ideas for using sporting events like Olympics in your church’s evangelism strategy this Summer.


Something slightly different this week – the three Olympic values, connected with Gospel themes to help you to use the Games to simply explain the Christian story.


Respect both for other competitors, and for the rules of the sports involved, is a founding principle of Olympic competition. It’s also a fundamental part of the Christian gospel – that we want to live our own way, but ultimately need to choose to live by God’s rules. In John 15 v 9, Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” We’re loved by God, but he wants us to love and respect him in return. Life, like the Olympics, is all about understanding and respecting the cosmic-scale rules that are there for our benefit.


God isn’t just in the habit of making rules though. In v15 (also John 15) Jesus also says: "I no longer call you servants... Instead, I have called you friends.” Jesus desires a personal friendship with us – to team up with us as we attempt to live our lives to the fullest. It another key principle of the Olympics, and indeed of all team sport: we work best when we operate in relationship with other people. The Olympics are all about friendship within teams, and between nations; everyone hopes that Rio 2016 will contain many more great examples of teamwork and friendship.


Finally, both the Olympics and Jesus are focused on excellence. In a sporting context, that means striving to beat age-old world records and rise to the top of an outstanding field; for Jesus it means choosing to live our lives by his own excellent standard. In practice, that means demonstrating love to everyone, even to our own detriment. As he says simply in John 15 v 12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” This is also what Paul calls “the most excellent way” in 1 Corinthians 12 :31.

Points for prayer

·         Pray for safety at the Rio Olympics, both for athletes and spectators, amid concerns around safety, security and violence.

·         Pray for a just outcome for Russian athletes – that those who have sought to cheat would not be rewarded, and that those who are truly innocent will still get an opportunity to shine.

·         Pray for the spread of the Zika virus – that its impact would diminish and that the outbreak would quickly die down.

·         Pray for a fabulous Olympics which is inspirational to the watching millions, and where those three great values are demonstrated.

·         Pray for Christian ministries working around the Games, that they would be successful in sharing a relevant Christian message among athletes and spectators alike.

Author Bio

Martin Saunders

Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.