Olympic athletes give praise where it is really due
By Charles Gardner
As the Olympic Games shows increasing signs of returning to its pagan1 roots, the humility amid personal brilliance of a few outstanding Christian competitors shines out like stars in a darkened universe.
And its promotion as a showpiece for world peace and unity was tarnished by the hostility shown to the 47-member Israeli delegation2 – 44 years after eleven Israeli athletes were massacred at the Munich Olympics by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
For Britain, bursting with pride after collecting a staggering 67 medals and finishing second in the table to the United States at Rio, it was an event to savour after some of our politicians had downplayed patriotism in favour of staying within the European Union.
It seems the British bulldog spirit has instead received a belated boost. But the prowess of our athletes isn’t enough; what the human body can achieve should not be an opportunity for self-congratulation, but for giving honour where it is really due as in the case of South African athlete Wayde van Niekerk, who gave glory to God just moments after his spectacular win in the 400 metres – echoing the gold medal won in the same event at the 1924 Paris Olympics by legendary Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, who went on to be a missionary in China.3
Holding up his running spikes, imprinted with the words ‘Jesus I am all yours, use me’ after breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record with a time of 43.03 seconds, Wayde told the BBC: “The only thing I can do now is to give God praise. I went on my knees each and every day and I told the Lord to take care of me every step of the way.”
His achievement is all the more amazing as he had to fight for his life when entering the world as a 2lb premature baby in Cape Town 24 years ago.
He was congratulated by Usain Bolt, another vocal Jesus-follower, who was on his way to completing an unprecedented triple hat-trick of titles with golds for 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m in three consecutive Olympics. The two might have competed together had the South African 200m champion elected not to enter that race in his first Olympics.
Also giving praise to Jesus was American pastor’s daughter Allyson Felix after winning two golds (4 x 100 & 4 x 400m) and a silver medal in the 400m individual.
Describing her ability as a gift from God, she said: “For me, my faith is the reason I run. I definitely feel I have this amazing gift that God has blessed me with, and it’s all about using it to the best of my ability.”
But she has suffered pain and disappointment over the years, explaining: “It is with injuries my faith really plays a part because I know I’m able to look at the bigger picture and see that God has a plan for my life and that this is also part of it. I can’t imagine my life without Jesus. I can’t imagine just waking up and going through life without Him. He is my life and that’s what I live for. I have learned that track doesn’t define me. My faith defines me. I’m running because I have been blessed with a gift.”
And what about the Fijian rugby sevens team who, after winning gold by beating Team GB in the final for their country’s first ever Olympic medal, got down on their knees to praise and thank the Lord who is clearly first in their hearts!
As London vicar Andy Palmer4 put it, they were reflecting the attitude shown by Israel’s King David in penning Psalm 104 that, whatever we achieve as humans, we are merely God’s creation and he is far greater than us – He is the one to be praised!
So let’s take inspiration from these Olympic heroes who understood that there is a bigger picture to our lives; that Jesus wants to win our hearts and a life lived without him is ultimately empty and meaningless.
The Apostle Paul was clearly familiar with the ancient Olympics, making several references to athletics in his letters to the early Christians. In a rebuke to the Galatians who had been deceived by false teaching, he scolds: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5.7)
To the Philippians, he encourages them to join him as he presses on “towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3.14)
To Timothy his protégé, he urges: “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Tim 4.7f)
And again to Timothy he declares: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim 4.7f)
Yes, there is a prize for which we can all strive, as St Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 9.24-27)
And in the letter to the Hebrews, we are urged to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross…” (Heb 12.2)
So we can learn from athletes of the necessity for strict training in our spiritual lives because we are not running aimlessly, but for a crown that will last forever.
Having competed in many marathons, I have been hugely inspired by these scriptures over the years, encouraging me to keep going, and not give up, even though it hurts and the road ahead seems so long and arduous.
The only occasion I didn’t finish a race – ‘hitting a wall’5 after 22 miles in the 1972 Scottish Marathon – made me realise there was more to life than running, that God had a purpose and plan for my life. And within a week I had asked Jesus to be my Lord and Saviour.
I have never looked back. I see this as a picture of Britain, a nation that has been running away from God in a fruitless race to nowhere. But now, perhaps shaken up by the Brexit vote, we have finally run out of steam, leaving us in a position to once more consider the claims of the Jewish Messiah who has helped to make our country great.
‘Britain’s golden age’ was how one tabloid described our success at Rio. Perhaps that is stretching it too far, but if we shift our emphasis to a pursuit of discovering our true purpose instead of a relentless striving after earthly comfort and material benefits, there is a ‘pot of gold’6 at the end of the rainbow, and it’s found in the person of Jesus Christ, who said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) Or as a Jewish friend told me, he (Jesus) is the only one who can take us to the finish line and award us the greatest medal of all – forgiveness of sin and eternal life!
1We have been reminded, in a Christianity Today article by Steven Gertz, that the Olympics was lost to the world for 1,500 years after being outlawed by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393AD for being too pagan. Not only did it involve gory violence and naked competitors, but pigs and bulls were sacrificed to pagan gods, to whom athletes swore allegiance. (Apparently Theodosius was strongly influenced by Bishop Ambrose of Milan.) Alarmingly, the current Olympian anthem calls on an “ancient eternal spirit” – clearly with no connection to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – to bless its endeavours.
2An Egyptian judo competitor was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of his Israeli rival Or Sasson, who went on to win a bronze medal – somewhat ironic as the two countries have been at peace for 37 years – and the Lebanese Olympic delegation was reprimanded after blocking Israeli athletes from entering a bus they were supposed to share.
3The subject of the film Chariots of Fire, Liddell elected not to run his favoured race, the 100m, because the heats were held on a Sunday – the Lord’s Day – and surprised everyone with his brilliant run in the longer event. He went on to preach the gospel in China and died prematurely in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But his legacy lives on – ultimately his whole life was run as a race to complete the work to which Jesus had called him.
4Rev Andy Palmer is vicar of St John’s, Downshire Hill, in Hampstead.
5An expression used by marathon runners to indicate complete inability to go any further
6According to the Bible, all believers can look forward to living in a city of pure gold (Rev 21.18)