The ancient Olympic games were held without interruption in Greece for 1,170 years. However, the Romans gained control of the Olympic Games in 146 BC and moved them to Rome in 80 BC. Ironically, the games, which started out as a religious tribute to the many gods of the Greek culture, were ended by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius 1 because of their pagan influences on the Christian community.
But when it comes to the 2012 Olympics in London, what was the motivation that drove these athletes to sacrifice so much of their youth to win a medal? And after they achieve their dream, what then?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the testimony of some of the athletes in their pre- and post-Olympic press interviews. But first, let’s see how the Apostle Paul linked athletic training and competition to faith.
Paul often used sports metaphors in his Epistles and referred to the “perishable wreath” the ancient athletes competed for in contrast to the “imperishable wreath” that will be awarded to followers of Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24, Paul writes, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we are imperishable” (NASB). This verse, I believe, can apply to the motivation and drive of the American athletes who gave thanks and praise to God in their pre-Olympic interviews, and after winning medals in the recent games.
For those who are followers of Jesus Christ, they believe they were created in the image of God and their purpose in life is to bring honor and glory His name in everything they do, including athletic competition. These Christian athletes are also training and competing in obedience to Colossians 3:23 which reads, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (NASB). These athletes pursued excellence in their respective sport because they sought to honor God in their behavior and performance because both are a reflection of the one they have aligned with, Jesus Christ.
Here are a few facts from the bios of three of our family’s favorite 2012 Christian Olympic athletes.
My favorite Christian athlete who competed in the 2012 games is Allyson Felix. My wife and I were always impressed by her humility and willingness to acknowledge God’s hand in her ability and success. Following the U.S. victory in the 4x100 relay, Felix said, “God has been so good to me.”
In an interview with Mary Fairchild for About.com prior to the Olympics in London, Fairchild asked Felix, “How does your faith influence you as an athletic competitor?” Allyson gave the following answer:
“My faith inspires me so much. It is the very reason that I run. I feel that my running is completely a gift from God, and it is my responsibility to use it to glorify Him. My faith also helps me not be consumed with winning, but to see the big picture and what life is really all about.”
What a great ambassador for Christ and the United States of America!
In an article posted by Sports Spectrum on Aug. 8, writer Tim Ellsworth noted, “The fame and fortune that Douglas instantly captured may make some things easier, but they won’t remove the difficulties from her life. When she faces such struggles she turns to scripture."
At an Aug. 5 press conference at the North Greenwich Arena, Gabby Douglas said: “God has given me this awesome talent to represent Him. Glory goes up to him, and the blessings fall down on us."
When she’s learning something new that may seem intimidating, she tells herself, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of peace, love and a sound mind,” she said. When she’s having trouble perfecting a skill, she quotes, “All things are possible through him.”
The Sports Spectrum article also mentions Gabby sharing her testimony at the Valley Church where she attends in West Des Moines, Iowa where she said, “The glory goes all to him. He’s waking me up every morning and He’s keeping me in the gym every day. That’s very important,” she said, asking her church family to pray for her to “bring home the gold.” Could it be that God answered Gabby and her church's prayers so that she might have a platform to glorify his name?
As with Allyson Felix, isn’t Gabby the type of individual Christians want representing their faith and the United States of America?
Athletes In Action posted an article about David Boudia on Aug. 9 which was written by Teresa Young, AIA Communications, “prior” to his bronze and gold medal performances. I emphasize the word prior in the previous sentence because of Boudia’s attitude prior to the competition and how he finished. In the article Young writes:
David Boudia feels like he is a different man as he returns to the Olympic diving competition in London.
“This year is 100 percent different for me,” says Boudia, whose first Olympic experience was in the 2008 Beijing Games.
“The whole journey going into the Games and my perspective is different, and that’s totally because of my relationship with Christ,” explains Boudia, who competes in the 10-meter platform and 10-meter synchronized platform events.
“Through the 2008 Olympics, it was all about me and my glory, trying to get money. All of it was vanity. Now I have a contentment and faith that God is sovereign, and no matter how I write my own plan He’s going to do what’s best for me.”
Regardless of the final score, win or lose, God will use the outcome in a way that benefits the believer. Had Boudia failed to medal in his two events, he would have accepted the outcome as God “doing what’s best for me.”
I say that Boudia would have been a winner in God’s eyes even if he had not won two medals.
THE REST OF THE WINNERS
What about the other American medal winners in the Games who gave no religious commentary or made no mention of God? Does that mean they do not believe in God or religion is not important to them?
For some, their faith is more of a private matter, and they choose not to talk about it. Perhaps they are the ones who sometimes look heaven-ward and point to the sky or do a symbolic religious ritual before they compete. Only God knows their heart, and we should not judge them based on their lack of testimony.
In contrast to the humble athletes we’ve described thus far, there are others who pound their chest, dance around drawing attention to themselves, talk about their personal greatness, or proclaim themselves “a legend” (comment by Usaine Bolt)).
I like what NBC sports commentator Bob Costas said about Bolt after he and his Jamaican-teammates won the 4/100 relay and Bolt had declared himself, “a legend.” Costas stated, “It’s hard to have a higher opinion of him than he has of himself.”
Most athletes generally attribute their success to commitment to their goals, their hard work, coaches and family support (usually mentioned by athletes of faith as well), all of which are valid reasons for their success. But I wonder what happens to those athletes when the cameras stop flashing, the crowd stops roaring, and their athletic ability starts to wane with age?
This is where I believe the athletes who have a strong faith in God will continue to win in the game of life.
Allyson Felix, and others like her, have set their sights on their heavenly home where some day they hope to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put your in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21, NIV).