Every four years the entire planet watches television – this time from Sochi, Russia. We’re all watching snowboarders do 1440’s and ice skaters establish new speed records. Most of all, we’re rooting for a lot of U.S. medals. For more than 10,000 athletes, these two weeks represent everything they’ve ever worked and lived for.
The Bible talks about races and training and scoring goals and staying the course and winning a prize. There are winners and losers in God’s Word; some get medals and others depart from the Games empty-handed. Can what’s happening in Sochi have meaning to the searching Christian? What can we learn from these athletes?
The Olympic Games have a long history of spiritual significance. The modern Olympics were preceded by the Olympian Games, which go all the way back to the year 776 B.C. They were held in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, and the athletic contests were held as a means of paying tribute to that Greek god. In a book entitled The Decathlon, by Frank Zarnowski, he writes: “The Greek physical contests were religious affairs. Those who took part did so to glorify a deity. And common belief was that the prizes came from a god.”
A man named Corœbus won that first 200-yard foot race in a meadow beside the river Alpheus, received a wreath of wild olive, and the rest, as they say, is history. That was almost 3,000 years ago, but we find in that brief report a partial answer to the question: Why? Why do athletes deny self and train for so many long years? For many, it’s to bring glory to an ideal or an institution above and beyond themselves.
Officially, Olympic medals and prizes and records only go to individuals. America and Canada don’t win gold medals — only people from those countries do. “The IOC does NOT keep national scores,” says one official report. But let’s get real. Everybody around the world also does count up the medal totals for nations. NBC does, and we all do as well. Here in the U.S. it’s a common question each evening: How’d our kids do? How many golds did WE get? Did our ski-jumping ladies soar higher and farther – first-time event! – than anybody else? Athletes from the tiniest, most obscure nation know that they’re curling and luge-ing, not just for themselves, but for everyone back home. They’re running for God and King, as the old expression goes.
It reminds me of Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works . . . and glorify your FATHER which is in heaven.”
Is that talking about gold medals? Sure it is. In a way, that verse says to me: “Train hard! Work hard! Perform to your peak! Then make sure God receives the glory.”
A delightful story comes to us out of the ‘72 summer Olympics held in Munich. Light-heavyweight wrestler Benjamin Lee Peterson and his brother John, in the middleweight division, both participated in Munich and Montreal. In ‘72 Ben won the gold medal, John the silver. In ‘76 the order was reversed — and ironically, they both lost to the same Russian, Levan Tediashvili.
But all through Ben’s personal story, which is related in a book entitled Tales of Gold by Lewis Carlson and John Fogerty, is a ringing testimony of faith in Jesus. Ben and his brother were intense born-again Christians, and they dedicated every single bit of their talent to the glory and honor of Christ. “I found that the Bible teaches us that our body is the temple of the spirit of God,” he writes. “So I wanted to take care of my body both as a Christian and as a wrestler. We wrestlers often refer to our body as our ‘wrestling machine.’ We know we have to keep it properly fueled, rested, and in good repair if it is not going to let us down. And by keeping my body strong and pure I knew that I also served God. John, [my brother], felt the same way about such matters, and we often talked about what it meant to be an ongoing witness for the Lord. If a bunch of the guys were telling dirty jokes or wanting to go to a party or something, we would simply say, ‘It’s time for us to leave.’ We knew that Christ would not want us involved with something like that.”
There are hundreds of athletes who consider the costs and the toil of training, and then decide that if they can compete for God, well, it’s worth it. One of my favorite stories is of how Christian sprinter named Eric Liddell traveled to the 1924 summer games in Paris, would not run on his Sabbath, stood up to his own country’s committee under great duress, and later won a gold medal in the 400-meter race, which wasn’t his specialty. And we turn off our Blu-Ray players after watching Chariots of Fire, and say, “Well, very nice. Good movie. Oscar-winning best picture.” But that Matthew 5:16 moment really did happen ninety years ago this summer! You can look in any record book, and there it’s listed. H. M. Abrahams — “Harold” — won in the 100-meter event with a time of 10.6, and in the 400, there it says in black and white: “Eric Liddell, Great Britain, 47.6.” And we think how his missionary father had said to him before the Olympics: “Run in God’s name, Eric, and the world will stand back in wonder.”
In a Newsweek cover article a number of Olympics ago, there was a sidebar piece about Gwen Torrence, who competed in Atlanta in the so-called sprinter’s triple gold: the 100, 200, and 4×100 relay. Why did she work so hard? Her husband answered that question when reporters asked. “Track doesn’t mean that much to Gwen,” he said. “She runs because that’s the talent God gave her.”
I confess that I’m a tired old guy who teaches five classes at San Bernardino Valley College and then props himself up to watch the ice dancing from Sochi. The closest I personally get to the ice is a few cubes I put in my diet Coke as I’m watching the action. And maybe you’re not an Olympic-caliber athlete either. When they compile the Olympic list of who brings home the most gold, your name and my name might not show up. But in your own quiet way, you can be a champion of some kind for God. I truly do believe that.
I’ve got three brothers who are all preachers. Not famous, not headline-makers. None of them have ever gotten a gold medal – although one church did give my brother Dan an iPad, which was kind of awesome. But every single day, these guys drive to their mission fields. They visit friends. They give Bible studies. They attend kids’ basketball games and birthday parties. They dry the tears of divorceés. They hold people’s hands during funerals. They preach some sermons which yield a hundred-fold harvest and others where the birds grab the seeds. And this is a very typical life of ministry in just about every denomination there is.
And I want to tell you something. These three amazing guys are Olympic champions. They are! No, they’re not on television all this week with a bazillion viewers. There aren’t any gold medals around their necks. Not yet, anyway. But God takes note of the fact that they’re doing their very best for His sake! In order to honor Him, they work 60 hours a week and drive all those miles and stand in the pulpit to open up God’s Word each weekend. Not for pay and not for pride, but for God. For Him. They’re letting their lights so shine before men that God’s name is quietly but faithfully lifted up. And believe me, one of these days, the gold medals will be handed out.