The Olympics and our Christian Journey

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We see it all in such a vivid way at the Olympics. Athletes who have prepared for years, many of them since their youngest days, reaching the culmination of their dreams at the Games – for some to see them end in gold and glory, while others see their dreams shattered in disappointment. I cringe every time I see a false start at the beginning of a race and think how that athlete had worked so hard to make the Olympics, even reaching the finals, only to see a careless mistake disqualify him/her before the race even begins. What a devastating heartbreak! Yet what a thrill to see victory – whether from the legends like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt to the newcomers like Simone Biles and the Final Five. And it is even more exciting to see a surprise winner, like Simone Manuel, who looked up in shock and wonder and thrill when she realized she had won the gold! The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!

One of the most powerful images, however, in which the true Olympic spirit came through, occurred in the women’s 5000m race, when  USA runner Abbey D’Agnostino accidentally clipped Australian Nikki Hamblin, which led Hamblin to fall hard on the track, followed by D’Agnostino falling on top of her. What a nightmare for two Olympic athletes to see their dreams destroyed by such an accident. Yet, what followed exemplified something greater than a gold medal. As Hamblin described it this way:

“I went down, and I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ Then suddenly, there’s this hand on my shoulder [and D’Agostino saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.’ I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. That girl is the Olympic spirit right there. I’ve never met this girl before, and isn’t that just so amazing? Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that you’re never, ever going to forget for the rest of your life, that girl shaking my shoulder like, ‘Come on, get up.’ ”

From D’Agnostino’s encouragement and kindness, Hamblin did get up and finish the race. And when D’Agnostino seemed to be seriously injured with what would eventually be diagnosed as a torn ACL, Hamblin was the one then encouraging her on. Both women eventually finished the race, nowhere near the top, yet they finished. And their story and example will surely live on during all future Olympics, for they both showed something much greater than simply winning a gold medal.

Kindness, encouragement, and helping others. What great virtues to see and learn from the Olympics. And of course, there are so many other great lessons we can discover for our own journey in the Christian life from the Olympics.

One of the nights when I was watching with my son, he said to me, “Imagine being the greatest in the world, the greatest among 7 billion people!” This desire to be the greatest, and to compete against the greatest, is what surely motivates many of the athletes - to look at yourself and to say that you are the greatest in a particular skill or event. Of course, just to make the Olympics is an incredible honor because you are one of the very few who represent your country, and are competing with the greatest athletes in the world. One problem of our contemporary society, however, is how we too often focus mainly on those who win, and ignore those who just compete. Well, that didn’t happen with D’Agnostino and Hamblin. It’s great to see their spirit of kindness win accolades

Of course, as I thought about being the greatest athlete in the world, I reflected on what it takes. Surely each athlete has to have a certain amount of God-given talent. Without that talent, no matter how much one tries, they will not reach the level of the Olympics. Yet even with the greatest talent, there is definitely no guarantee that one can reach the Olympics. Talent has to be combined with an incredible determination and will, a desire combined with unbelievable discipline and self-denial, to put in the countless hours of practice day after day, year after year.

Determined perseverance. In our age of instant gratification, such a virtue as determined perseverance is often ignored or rejected. We want everything here and now. With cell phones and internet, with planes that take us across the world overnight, our world has become a small global village where we expect to get many things we want immediately.

And yet, many of the greatest things can’t be achieved in an instant. Just ask any of the Olympic athletes what it took for them to reach Rio. It’s not about the brief seconds to run a race, but it’s the years and years of training that make it possible for the athlete to reach the Olympics. Years and years of preparation; watching what they eat; beating their bodies day and night; sacrificing many pleasures. Training each and every day, day after day, with one goal in mind - to become an Olympian! To be declared one of the greatest athletes in the world!

St. Paul used this imagery of the athlete as a prototype for our own Christian journey. “Do you not know,” he writes, “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 forever. 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 9:24-28)

In another letter, the Apostle Paul says, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-16)

In both of these passages, St. Paul points to the ultimate “Olympic” contest – our spiritual marathon into the Kingdom of Heaven. Thank God, this spiritual contest does not offer only one gold medal to a single winner. There are not even three winners receiving medals for each event. God welcome as many winners as who truly want to follow Jesus Christ and pursue the Kingdom of Heaven. That is, God willingly opens up the podium stand to all who “seek first the Kingdom of God above all else,” yet each of us Christians must have a similar determination, self-discipline and self-denial as we see it the greatest of the Olympians. Will we put our desire for the kingdom of God BEFORE ALL ELSE like these athletes have done? Such determined perseverance, combined with D’Agnostino’s kindness, the desire to help others, the willingness to sacrifice ourselves to help the other. In this way, if we will seek above all else the Kingdom of heaven, God will welcome us as victorious, heavenly Olympians!

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