My husband and I attended the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with one goal: seeing at least one medal ceremony.
So, while everyone else was applying for hard-to-get tickets for track and field, gymnastics and swimming, I was applying for tickets to the medal rounds of table tennis, badminton and team handball.
Not only did we walk away with new appreciation for these immensely enjoyable sports, we also ended up witnessing multiple medal award ceremonies – every one of which was as wonderful as I had dreamed.
I also discovered the answer to the “Medal Count Paradox.” You’ve noticed this paradox even if you’ve never called it that.
If you watch TV coverage of the games, it is clear that the U.S. has the best athletes in the world.
We win everything – basketball, baseball, softball, even soccer (especially if you’re watching the women). We have great runners, swimmers and divers. We’re completely awesome.
Yet, at the end of the games, you might happen to see the official medal count and think, “Hey, what’s this? What are all these medals won by all these other countries? I didn’t see any of this!
“What sports are the Chinese dominating to win a hundred medals? How did the Brits and the Aussies get into the top five? I didn’t even see any South Koreans competing; how did they win 13 golds?
“Where the heck is Azerbaijan and how did they win seven medals? Togo? Someone from Togo won a bronze? In what!?!”
I’ll mention that these are actual results from one year of the Summer Olympics.
The answer to the paradox is actually obvious: We watch the sports that we win, and unless we take a close look at the medal count, we end up with a very skewed view of the games.
I learned something when I went to the Olympics – and it was more than a rudimentary understanding of the rules of team handball or the fact that the badminton shuttlecock can move at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
I learned that it matters what we do and do not notice, where we do or do not turn our attention.
If we are not careful, we can miss not just a little but most of what is happening around us.
For more than 20 years now, I have had the best job in the world, a job that puts me into daily contact with men and women who are creatively, courageously and effectively working for peace.
They are convening healing truth-telling sessions between settler and indigenous communities in Canada.
They are teaching Mexican schoolchildren (and their parents and teachers) nonviolent ways of solving problems.
They are entering warring Kenyan villages and leading conflict transformation trainings, which empower people to speak and act for peaceful resolutions.
They are conducting trauma awareness and resilience programs for South Sudanese people living in refugee camps.
They are offering men and women leaving prison wisdom from their own indigenous heritage to help them reintegrate into society.
They are teaching U.S. churches to surface and work against their own unintentional racism.
They are pulling Guatemalan villagers together to resist environmental destruction wrought by multinational businesses.
They are teaching Ugandan gay, lesbian and transgender persons their own God-given worth.
They are training Mexican seminary students in the art of photography and videography so they can document and oppose human rights abuses in their small villages, unseen by large nongovernmental organizations.
Day after day, people all over the world confront evil effectively without turning to violence, and most often we are looking elsewhere.
We miss not just some but most of what is happening and thus we question the power of nonviolence.
In 2009, I was fortunate enough to attend the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Rome.
This conference drew nearly 400 people from almost 100 different countries, all of them people who are actively working in some way for positive change through nonviolent means.
Many of these people work in places in which civil wars, natural disasters and ongoing grinding poverty make such work all the more difficult.
Every day, I made a point to sit with someone new at every meal, and the stories I heard were a feast indeed. It was one of the most profoundly hopeful things I have ever done.
This summer, you have the opportunity to experience this yourself as the Global Baptist Peace Conference convenes July 15-20 in Cali, Colombia.
Open up your world and meet peacemakers from Kenya to Cuba, from Myanmar to Morocco, from Lebanon to Liberia on the beautiful campus of Unibautista, the Baptist seminary of Colombia.
You’ll return home with new stories, insights, skills – and a new community of encouragement and support for your own efforts to create peace rooted in justice.
Who knows? – there might even be a game of badminton. Just don’t expect to win.