The global good news

Doomsday-mongering is a staple feature of the faux-intellectual life, occasionally influential and sometimes quite lucrative. The Club of Rome’s dire certainties about the “limits to growth” shaped Carter Administration thinking and policy. Paul Ehrlich’s tediously repetitious predictions that “over-population” would cause mass starvation and other global catastrophes were rewarded by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, irrespective of the fact that none of Ehrlich’s alarums ever panned out. The nuclear freeze movement was whipped up by eminently-forgettable potboilers like the 1983 TV movie, “The Day After;” the Great Satan of that moment was Ronald Reagan (whom many of his erstwhile critics now praise in preference to the archfiend Bush). Green doomsday-mongering is currently the fashion and just won Al Gore (with whom I once worked on alternatives to the nuclear freeze!) the Nobel Peace Prize — the Norwegian Nobel Committee thus reducing that once-distinguished award to the equivalent of an Oscar.

Catholic social thought has not always been immune to certain kinds of doomsday-mongering. The 1968 encyclical, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), was influenced by some of the convictions that led the Club of Rome to criticize what we now call “globalization.” Rumors of a new social encyclical to mark the fortieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio have been circulating in the past few months. Should such an encyclical be in the works, its drafters would do well to cast a critical eye on the economic, anti-natalist, and environmental doomsday-mongering of recent decades.

For, according to a recent U.N. “State of the Future” Report, the happy news is that the human condition is improving, rapidly and exponentially: “People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and…are living longer.” Global illiteracy is now down to 18 percent, having been cut in half over the past two generations. The boy or girl born today will likely live 50 percent longer than a child born in the mid-1950s. More people are living in political freedom than ever before.

And poverty has been dramatically reduced. In 1981, 40 percent of the world’s population scraped out a life on less than $1/day; today, that percentage is down to 25 percent. That is completely unacceptable; it is also a major improvement, most of which can be attributed to free trade (about which Populorum Progressio was skeptical). As John Paul II taught in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, poverty today is caused by exclusion, and the cure is inclusion: exclusion from the networks of productivity and exchange that generate wealth must be remedied by empowerment strategies that give ever more people the skills to get into the game.

The real problem in the 21st century, according to Oxford economist Paul Collier, is the “bottom billion.” There are six billion people in the world, of whom one billion are rich and four billion are on track to get rich, if at different rates. The top five billion are linked to, and work within, those networks of productivity and exchange discussed by John Paul II; the “bottom billion” aren’t. Rather, according to Collier, they’re caught in various “traps,” including the trap of corrupt government, the trap of ethnic/tribal/religious conflict, the resources trap, and the trap of bad neighbors. Thus a rebel leader in Zaire boasted that you could do a successful coup d’etat with a cell phone and ten thousand dollars: the money to raise an army from impoverished tribesmen, and the cell phone to make deals to sell natural resources to the likes of China. (For more on Collier and his call for international action to police those aforementioned networks of productivity and exchange, see Father Richard Neuhaus’s essay on The Bottom Billion in the October issue of First Things.)

For the first time in human history, no one has to be poor. No one has to go to bed hungry or, worse, starve. The social teaching of the Church, which rightly gives priority to the poor, best serves the global dispossessed when it accurately identifies how billions of people have gotten un-poor. If the U.N. can figure that out, the Catholic Church certainly can.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.