The Olympics are one of the greatest displays of faith in action that the secular world has. For four years, athletes all over the globe dedicate every second of their lives to training for one moment in time when their dreams will either be fulfilled or destroyed. Years are given for the sake of minutes in which hundredths-of-seconds-difference often determines this outcome. With such high stakes, I’m reminded of an oft-quoted verse by Virginia Men’s Basketball coach, Tony Bennett, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)
This verse pretty well summarizes the life of the athlete and also the beauty of their competition. I cannot help but think of Michael Phelps when I read it. No Olympian has ever come close to winning as often as Phelps has. On August 9, 2016, he won his twentieth and twenty-first Gold Medals (second place in the Modern Age has won nine). For the twentieth, he went toe-to-toe with Masato Sakai, Tamás Kenderesi, and Chad Le Clos in the 200-meter Butterfly where inches and hundredths of a second separated the four of them at the finish line. As spectators, we got to witness the greatness of not only these athletes’ God-given ability, but also a lifetime’s worth of discipline and dedication to their craft that had been honed for the past four years. With such a closely contested race, we marveled at how Michael Phelps has been able to achieve such unprecedented accomplishment in a sport that leaves such little margin for error. Then, we shared in his exaltation and vicariously experienced the satisfaction he must have felt after the validation of all his hard work was delivered to him in the form of a gold medal. After all, do we not watch sports as an encouragement for our own personal battles? Don’t we see Phelps, a great champion, and think to ourselves, “I may never be Michael Phelps, but if he can win more than twenty gold medals, then I can be strong enough to lose that ten pounds I’ve been meaning to lose … or earn that bonus at work … or finish that triathlon”?
But, what of the other three competitors who did not win gold? More specifically, the man who had seven tenths of a second separate him from the top prize and less than half a second bar him from a medal. Even though we feel some sense of justice being served to Chad le Clos for provoking and taunting Phelps before the race, it is hard to not sympathize with his heartbreak. Undoubtedly, he trained just as hard as everyone else in the race, swam in such a way as to win, believed all his efforts would yield a reward, and then he came up empty-handed. All his sacrifice fell inches short of the history books, left to sink into the depths of the forgotten. How does he reconcile giving every fiber of his being to his life’s goal and still coming up short?
Sadly, for each Michael Phelps, there are millions of Chad le Closes or people who never even made it as far as he did. And, this is true not just in sports but in any pursuit. So why bother? How can you deal with the heartache of a dream unfulfilled, of a lifetime of training with nothing to show for it?
The answer is that there is a prize, in fact, a much greater one, that the masses can attain. It is a prize that “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) And, despite its availability to all, it’s one we all fall short of earning, even the Michael Phelpses of the world. Still, this prize requires a similar faith, dedication, and sacrifice as that of an Olympic athlete in order to acquire.
1 Corinthians 9 goes on to state the following in verse 25: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” (The Ancient Olympics awarded wreaths rather than medals.)
Why do we love the Olympics and sports so much? It is not merely the witness of human greatness, for surely that is limited. Rather, it is the reflection of truth in the race. We watch the struggle that is so symbolic of our Earthly lives (Jesus promised we would have trouble – John 16:33), and we take courage from the men and women that persevere. From the few who win the sought-after prize, we see a glimpse of joy, a dim reflection of the true, eternal glory that awaits us in heaven. This reflection is earthly and only the smallest portion of the abundant joy found in the glory of God, a fraction even smaller than the hundredths of seconds that separate Phelps from his competitors. But, even that tiny echo fills our hearts with a mighty song because some part of us recognizes that we have tapped into something greater than our individual existences. Our hope and our duty as Christians is to sing that song for Christ, to celebrate the flashes of His majesty we get to enjoy on this Earth and to give up all we have for Him and for His glory with an athlete-like faith, dedication, and sacrifice. Then, on that day when we stand before Him in all His splendor, we might dare to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)