Olympic tributes and true lament

Soon after NBC aired the Olympic opening ceremonies in the United States, Deadspin reported that the televised version had left out a tribute to loved ones lost.

The Deadspin report includes a video from the BBC broadcast, and the BBC commentary suggests this segment was a response to the 7/7/05 terrorist bombings in London, which occurred only a day after the announcement that London had won the honor of hosting these Olympic games. The six-minute segment includes an a capella version of the hymn “Abide With Me” and an interpretive dance. In the U.S., we saw Ryan Seacrest interviewing swimmer Michael Phelps instead.

NBC has not commented on their decision not to air the segment, except to say, “Our program is tailored for the U.S. television audience,” which leaves us to only speculate on the reasons. Some in comment threads complain that the segment was “boring” or “confusing” and others suggest that Americans might be angry that this segment was included and not a moment of silence for the Israeli Olympians killed in Munich in 1972. Regardless of the real reasons, the implicit message of replacing a lament and request for God’s presence with an interview with our most famous Olympian is troubling.

First, it suggests imperviousness to the suffering of others. Disinterest in an expression of sorrow, even if it is in protest of not including a different expression, seems callous and petty. Second, it speaks to an American unease with the process of lament. While we have a tradition of national eulogy and memorial building, we are uncomfortable with public displays of negative emotion, and we are nervous about someone “politicizing” shared pain in a way we disagree with. Contemplating American response to tragedy leads me to a series of examples of wanting to hold on to our hurt, and others of wanting to dismiss it, but few of sincere, shared lament.

In the wake of the recent shooting in Aurora, Colo., many have remarked at the de-facto pattern of response that emerges. The Onion even offered this parody: “Sadly, the Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting’s Aftermath Will Play Out.” This pattern of reaction, also described by an Atlantic blogger, includes confusion, obsession with the details of the event and the suspect’s past, but tends to rush through processes of mourning and lament.

This aspect of American public culture is confusing to me in a country so dominated by Christian faith, because the Bible and the Christian tradition offer us so many tools to express a complex lament. The psalms are filled with genuine anger and sadness, as well as detailed descriptions about the desperate, unjust situations we sometimes find ourselves in, interwoven with hope and praise for God. This tradition is mimicked in our hymnbooks as well: “Abide With Me,” the hymn used in the opening ceremony, was written by Henry Francis Lyte as he lay dying of tuberculosis.

NBC’s unwillingness to air this segment suggests a lack of faith that Americans would be willing and able to enter into a lament deeply entrenched in our shared Christian tradition. Replacing that moment with an upbeat interview about Phelps’ potential to become the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time makes the decision even more insulting. It suggests we are far more interested in asserting our national superiority than in weeping with those who weep.

What Do You Think?

  • Should NBC have aired the tribute segment?
  • Do you feel Americans, in general, are averse to true, sincere lament?
  • What might true lament look like in the wake of a tragedy such as the Aurora, Colo., shooting?

Comments (2)

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I was disturbed that NBC didn’t air the tribute, and truly wish that they had.  You make several good points about America and the way that we deal with suffering.  We are a success based society with little tolerance for failure.  Because of this I think you are right in saying that we are uncomfortable with public displays of lament.  This is indeed something at odds with our Christian roots.  As Christians our logo, if you will, is a naked man nailed to a cross.  It’s the ultimate tribute to the transforming power of suffering.  We are the only religion that worships the victim and believes that God is not distant from our pain, but suffers with us.  It is only through the pain of the cross that we can move through the darkness and into the light of the resurrection.  How can we reach that light if we refuse to deal with the darkness?

With the daily dose of tragedy in the world, I had forgotten about the London event. It’s the job of the press to remind us. I agree with Bethany. I would have at least liked the option “to mourn with those who mourn.” But whoever controls programming has decided to compartmentalize public grief. We are treated to faces of grief on the news but while we are escaping with whatever entertains us the thought is that we should be shielded from reality. Only when we are paying for drama and expecting drama should our entertainment include drama. Remember after 9/11 how, for a while, images of the towers were removed from movies but now they are back in? Is this a marketing decision? I keep thinking about a passage in James describing a person who looks at himself in a mirror then walks away and forgets what he looks like.

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