There is something uniquely captivating about the Olympic games. They are a mix of awe and wonder as we witness people created in the image of God who have sacrificially honed their bodies and physical skills in phenomenal ways. Add to that the hypnotic power that comes over us when our love of country—born from the reality of where God has providentially rooted us—is combined with our love of sporting competition.
There is a tendency in contemporary culture to consider ours the most sports-obsessed society in human history. Though our culture is clearly saturated with a passion for sports, the obsession with sports was even more pervasive in antiquity. The first ancient Olympic games can be traced back to 776 B.C. and took place on the ancient plains of Olympia, which is on the western part of the Peloponnese. Along with the Olympics, other Greek crown competitions were held at Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. The competitions were athletic-religious festivals, and the athletes were viewed as demi-gods. The Olympic games continued for nearly 12 centuries before they were banned by Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 393 for being pagan cults. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896.
The Olympics has a way of drawing us into competitions we wouldn't otherwise enjoy. Personally, my deepest sporting passions are baseball, tennis and football. I have hardly ever chosen to watch hockey or gymnastics. Nevertheless, my most exciting Olympic memories took place in these sports. As a 12-year-old boy, I watched the 1980 USA hockey team accomplish what is now referred to as “the miracle on ice” by defeating the dominant Russian hockey team in the height of the Cold War. I can vividly remember leaping up and down and embracing everyone in the room.
In 1996, Kerri Strug came to the vault with Olympic gold on the line for the U.S.A. gymnastic team. On her first vault she tore two ligaments in one of her ankles, and it seemed as if the gold was lost to the Russian team. Strugs vaulted a second time, in intense pain, and somehow ran down the 75-foot runway, flew through the air and stuck the landing with only one good leg. A 4-foot-9 female gymnast is one of the best example of fearlessness, toughness and gutsy heart that I have ever witnessed in sports.
Few of the athletes who compete in the Olympics will financially profit from their grueling sacrifice to represent their country, though. Most have other jobs that allow them to pay the bills while they pursue their Olympic dream. Years of preparation and discipline all flow into a few days of competition that is both glorious and cruel. For those who triumph, I imagine few things compare with victory on behalf of their country. Consequently, performing poorly carries a burden greater than a mere individual loss. But, cruelest of all, to me, is the athlete who gets injured prior to or during Olympic competition. The physical pain cannot compare to the agony of a deferred Olympic dream, or as is true in most cases, the end of the dream.
With the excitement of the 2016 Olympic games upon us, here are four ideas about how to watch the competition to the glory of God:
1. Look for truth, beauty and goodness as God’s image bearers compete
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).
I will be unapologetically rooting for America to win every event in the 2016 Olympic games. Nevertheless, watching as a Christian means that I enjoy and delight in God as I witness remarkable feats by his image bearers of all nations. In fact, some of the best things about Olympic coverage are the remarkable human interest segments on athletes from around the world. Watch and listen with a sense of awe. Be reminded that every person’s greatest need is Jesus. Pray for the athletes you learn about.
2. Learn about focus and perseverance in the face of struggle
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (Heb. 12:1-2a).
The author of Hebrews compares the Christian faith to a struggle (agōn, from which we get our word “agony,” is translated here as “the race”). We are like a runner competing in the Olympics— agonizing and possessing a fixation on the finish line. In our race, Christ ran and finished before us. Yet he is above the race; he governs the race of faith and is the one in whose honor the race is held. Furthermore, Jesus starts each runner on his course and provides the means for a successful race. He also demonstrated how the race was won—Christ himself endured his struggle (agōn) to win the place of honor in triumph at the right hand of God. Allow the focus and perseverance of the Olympic athletes to draw your mind back to this, encouraging you to persevere in the faith with single-minded, Christ-centered focus in your spiritual struggles.
3. Be challenged toward personal discipline and purpose
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
The two analogies in this passage are from Olympic-type games: a race and a boxing match. They both underscore the reality of Christian struggle and the need for discipline. Paul asserts that we should run to win, but to do so requires self-control. He also argues that we should be as merciless to our fleshly appetites as a boxer is to his opponent. The Christian faith demands focused self-control and an excellence that was modeled by athletes in the Corinthians’ day and age. May our modern athletes remind us of the same thing during this Olympic competition.
4. Let the nations represented cause you to think about our gospel mission
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10).
Few things represent unified humanity in the midst of ethnic diversity as well as the Olympic games. Some who have little day-to-day interest in athletics will still watch the majestic opening ceremonies as all the athletes gather with great pomp. It is a marvelous display. Christians know this is a picture of something greater. They know that God is at work through Jesus saving a people from every tribe, tongue and ethnic group, creating a new humanity whose chief characteristic is union with Christ. As you enjoy the games, pray for the gospel to spread among all the nations represented.
I wonder what memorable moments this year’s Olympics will sear into our hearts and minds? Let your love of country and enjoyment of sports be a catalyst to spur you on to greater love for God in Christ. Let the games begin!
For further reading:
Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen G. Miller
The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey
The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling