Divisive Piety at the Olympics?

08/10/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

From a public health perspective, division and disparity are generally bad. Division of the human variety tends to mean conflict, and conflict means stress at best, violence at worst; these are clearly bad for health, both private and public. Disparity means some don't have what others do, and as has been described in detail in some very insightful books, that may well be the root cause of much of what ails us.

From a more general perspective, disparity tends to imply that someone is missing out; someone is losing. That's not a good thing -- at least not for them.

In fact, for better or worse, public health preoccupations tend to be all about those who are... losing. We don't tend to celebrate the winners, other than on rare occasion when some encouraging time trend report is published -- and even then, it's about data rather than people. We don't celebrate routinely the times HIV is not transmitted to an individual; we don't routinely acknowledge the number of people who haven't been shot on any given day; and we tend to overlook heart attacks that don't happen. Rather, it's the cases of HIV that grab our attention; it's the bullet wounds. We focus on, lament, and try to fix the bad stuff that happens.

Public health is very much preoccupied with the "losers" in the game of life. And as a practitioner of it, I suppose so am I. I want fewer people to lose -- particularly given the stakes in this game: years in life, life in years.

What we do every day affects how we see the world. And so it is with my public health perspective as at least one of my lenses that I have been watching -- and for the most part loving -- the Olympics. Loving, for the most part. I have been disturbed by one theme in particular.

When American athletes -- and if not exclusively, it does seem to be at least particularly American athletes -- are interviewed after a winning performance, they tend to accredit the victory to God first and foremost. God comes in ahead of spouses, parents, and even coaches. Winning at the Olympics owes, apparently, much to God.

This is not truly unique to the Olympics. There is a well-established tendency for religion to infiltrate athletic competition. There have long been signs of the cross at baseball and football games; there is the now-famous posturing of Tim Tebow.

All of this would seem to suggest that baseball and football standings count among God's great priorities in a world of human trafficking, child pornography, global warming, mass extinctions, homicidal rampages, devastating droughts, earthquakes, and tsunamis. I've always found this a bit far-fetched, but knowing for sure what God's priorities may be is well above my pay grade.

The Olympics take this game of "God made me do it" to another level -- providing the religiosity of sport an international stage. Maybe this is to be expected, given that the legendary origins of the Olympics are all tied up with gods -- albeit the gods of ancient Greece.

Giving God credit and thanks for opportunity in life, or the motivation to strive, is all but universal among the faithful. But something more seems to be going on here. Athletes are not just thanking God for opportunity and fervor -- they are crediting God for a competitive victory. This, in turn, seems to be suggesting something very specific about the inclinations of the Almighty.

Has anyone paused to consider that for every winner, there is a loser (in fact, often a whole batch of losers) -- and that if God is choosing winners, then God must be choosing losers, too? Are the athletes who attribute their victory to God willing to "blame" God for the often-bitter disappointments of the vanquished?

Is it reasonable to hold God accountable for defeat and failure? Is it reasonable if the losers are good people -- just as good as the winner? Is it still reasonable if they are not only just as good, but also practitioners of the same faith, and just as pious? And what if they are just as good, just as pious, just as fervid, practicing the same religion, and worked just as hard? On what basis is God making such decisions?

I suppose we might, as people tend to do when matters of faith are questioned, just throw up our hands and ascribe this all to the unknowable particulars of God's grand plan. But if winning and losing are equally prescribed in the grand plan, then are they really winning and losing? Isn't everyone doing an equally good job of doing the job God decided to give them? If the losers are every bit as good at doing what God wants them to do as the winners, then who are we to presume to declare them losers -- and give medals to the other guys?

If winning and losing are all just prescribed roles in the same grand plan, then there is no winning and losing. Rudyard Kipling was being generous to call them impostors -- they simply don't exist. And we should stop presuming to say otherwise.

But all of our actions -- as athletes, and spectators -- suggest that they do exist. All around the world, participants and spectators alike revel in triumph, and suffer through disaster. That we do universally venerate winning, and achievement -- and don't see defeat as a comparably good commitment to the same lofty plan -- suggests we are at odds with God. That can't be good.

So it seems to me we need to make a choice. If winning is all about God, then so is losing -- and neither is better or worse, they are both just complementary parts of the common plan. We should stop distinguishing between them. No medals should be involved, no anthems.

If winning is better, then it's because we have decided so. In which case, we need to own it -- and stop invoking God for the travails of human choice.

Because every time a winner credits God, they are implying that God also picked the losers. That seems a dangerously divisive form of piety. We have enough division bedeviling us and our health without this kind of encouragement.

Maybe we could be humble. Maybe we could concede that God has more important things to worry about than baseball standings, or how fast a particular human being -- a member, by the way, of a notably slow species on both land and water -- runs or swims some particular distance. Maybe we could celebrate our own victories, while recognizing that God might be contending with renegade black holes, wayward galaxies, or keeping the gravitational constant just so.

Maybe God is just watching the Olympics like the rest of us. Maybe the winning and losing are actually all about the work of athletes and coaches and supporting family and friends -- and an entirely human affair. Maybe God isn't designating losers.

Maybe, along with the medals and the consolations -- the thrills of victory, and the agonies of defeat -- we can own both the credit and the responsibility, and not propagate division with piety.