Olympic Symbols

Canadians are so nice, I positively detest having to cite them as the most recent example of the bizarre phenomena by which the Olympic Games celebrate their opening and closing. Ceremony and ritual are the kind of things to which a Catholic imagination is naturally drawn, I suppose. Was anyone else baffled, even horrified, by the ceremonies in Vancouver?

It is one of the first rules of symbolic language that if you have to explain the symbol, it doesn’t work as a symbol. Visual symbols are there to replace words, not to require them. Put any human being in front of Michelangelo’s "Pieta" and if they are not moved to tears, they lack a human heart. Watch Laurence Olivier’s death scene in "Brideshead Revisited" and if you are not moved, you lack a human heart. And, non-verbal symbols have the capacity to point the human imagination beyond our usual horizons in a way that words oftentimes do not.


Perhaps, more to the point, watch an old newsreel of the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and if you are not terrified by the employment of Nazi symbols to celebrate the Volk and the Fuehrer, you may want to re-read your John Locke. Hitler was an evil genius and part of his genius lay in his ability to use symbols effectively. Symbols can be used for sinister purposes as well. They are powerful things. While the symbolism in Vancouver may have been banal, and banal is better than fascist, there is something sinsiter in banality too.

Catholics, of course, surround ourselves with symbols because they are usually better than words at explaining the faith. The central doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, is enfleshed by the use of earthly vessels for the conferral of the sacraments: bread, wine, oil, water. Indeed, the liturgy itself is a great congeries of symbols: the altar, the vestments, the music. And, the liturgy also shows that to be effective, symbols must be accessible. One of the reasons that Catholic funerals are so comforting is that the funeral Mass is little different from a regular Mass, it is familiar. At a time of stress and difficult emotions, you do not need to give voice to your sentiments out of whole cloth, you just have to repeat words you already know. If you have been to a thoroughly secular memorial service, chances are you have discovered the difference: People untrained in public speaking do their best but almost invariably their words, in their nervousness, to turn themselves and away from the one being eulogized. And, the speakers will be repetitive, and there will be too many eulogies because with the non-verbal symbols a faith community shares, words are the only symbols available.

None of this was known by the organizers of the ceremonies in Vancouver. The highlight of the opening ceremony two weeks ago was k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen’s "Alleluia" which was introduced as "a song of peace" and apart from the fact that lang and Cohen are both Canadians, I remain unclear why it was included. At the closing, the ceremony featured larger than life symbols of Canadian life, a sixty foot, cutout of a Mountie here, a floating moose there. These at least were transparent in their reference but it was unclear why they were there in the first place. Better to have waited until the closing to award the last medal of the Games, the Gold Medal for Hockey. I suspect the Canadian audience would have enjoyed that.

In 1976 I was happy to attend the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Olympics. Queen Elizabeth II presided so they were somewhat formal. But, where symbolism is involved, there is a lot to say for formality. I recall a troupe of real life Mounties entering the stadium, not cardboard cutouts, and they looked strapping and debonair and Canadian and they formed an honor guard for the athletes or the torch, I don’t recall which. (Yes, the torch – don’t get me going on that vestige of pagan symbolism! LOL) In two years time, the Brits host the summer games in London and they will hopefully turn the ceremonies over to someone associated with Buckingham Palace or the Knights of the Garter. Keep it away from the kind of stage and screen producers who produced the bizarre "cultural" programs we just witnessed. Symbols must speak for themselves. If you need a voice over from Donald Sutherland to explain the symbols, they have failed.

To regular readers – I apologize for the lack of postings in recent days. I was in Puerto Rico and did not bring my computer. I am now back to posting every morning.

Michael Sean Winters

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