The Olympics, statelessness and the gathering to come.

The Summer Olympics are winding down and I have been fortunate to spend the past 2+ weeks in places featuring televisions equipped with multiple channels of the ongoing competition (and NBC induced “human story narratives”).  Like millions around the world, my family and I have indulged ourselves in watching finely-trained athletes performing particular skills at the highest of levels.  In many ways the Olympics are a good thing.  This year it included moments when a small island country celebrated its first ever gold medal and a meaningful tribute to the millions of the globally displaced by featuring for the first time ever a refugee Olympic team.  Too often our world sees nations facing off in heated confrontation, so it is a welcomed sight to see people launch javelins rather than rockets and run towards finish lines rather than away from warfare.

Through the fanfare of the pomp and games, the Olympics is an event that exposes the challenges of our times.  These include the depth of social and political problems seen in the lead-up and execution of the Rio games and the dark underbelly of competitive sport caught with a prominent national team tangled in widespread cheating scandal. While these challenges have received significant attention, another challenge does not, the challenge of nationality (or the lack thereof).

Throughout the Olympics individuals compete for both personal and national glory as the hopes of a homeland rests (at varying weight) on their shoulders.  Athletes by and large do not have a choice in the flag they represent at these games (although I’m sure there are a few instances where an individual has multiple citizenships and she/he can participate under, or when a person is naturalized specifically due to her/his ability to compete in a particular sport).  Birth nationality is not a choice; it’s something we are born with based on circumstances beyond our control (ie. where we are born or the nationality of the parents we happen to be born to).  Athletes represent their respective nations not by choice but by chance.  While we can celebrate all sentiment of patriotism and national pride, we must acknowledge that it is not by any token of merit that an Olympic athlete wears one particular uniform and not another.  Michael Phelps won 28 medals for the United States not because he selectively chose to be American, but because he happened to be born American.  Like it or not, that’s the way nationality goes.  There is something else that isn’t chosen: having no nationality at all.

As we watch the athletes of the many nations participating in Olympic competition we should remember that there are millions who are stateless and have no nation.  Stateless individuals are not formally members of any nation-state, therefore they technically do not have a team in the Olympic games.  While many may feel a loyalty to a particular nation (like the one in which they reside and likely have deep roots) they cannot claim any participating country as “my country” since they don’t have citizenship to any country.  For all the ideals and global sentiment that the Olympic games espouse and muster, it is simply not a forum where everyone everywhere has a chance to participate. (Although the positive development of including a refugee team in this year’s games gives me hope that the Olympics can find ways to include those that unfortunately slip through the cracks of our global nation-state system.)

The Olympic shows one more area where the stateless are marginalized from our modern world.  It may seem trivial since the stateless suffer such comprehensive marginalization on a daily basis (like the inability to travel, attend school, gain legal employment, legally marry or register children, etc…), but being denied the opportunity to participate in athletics can be a severe blow to young lives.  I know a friend who was devastated as a teenager when he was refused entry into a taekwondo tournament because he has no form of citizenship.  He was denied the chance to put his hard work and practice into action, and it was the first painful realization that he lives in this world in a very different way than most others, that he won’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  He’s not alone; from Georgia to the Dominican Republic young people with real athletic talent are denied the opportunity to follow their dreams to national and personal glory.  The Olympics reminded us that even an event where every nation belongs is still an event where the stateless don’t belong.  It shouldn’t be surprising. Our modern world is a place where the stateless don’t belong, and this string strikes every aspect of life.

Fortunately not everything is like the Olympics.  In fact the most important thing is not like the Olympics.  God knows every exclusion this world can create, and He did something about it by establishing His kingdom as a domain that transcends this world and declares to all people, “You Belong!” This belonging is never based on our performance, identification or categorization but in our adoption as children of God.  Our belonging cannot be achieved by reaching any measurable marks but by being marked with immeasurable grace.  In this kingdom there is no distinction of nationality, gender or creed.   “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)  This is a different thing entirely, and in the end it will be the only thing entirely.

The Olympics are a gathering of people from all countries, but unfortunately not for those with no country.  Let all take heart in knowing that there is a much better gathering to come, a heavenly gathering of “every nation, tribe, people and languages.”  (Revelations 7:9)  Statelessness will not exclude anyone from that gathering, so let’s not allow statelessness to exclude anyone from our gatherings now.

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