At its most basic level, competition is not something that fits too snugly with a Christian life. It is not just about putting your goals and successes before those of others but actually involves seeking success through the subjugation of others; a far cry from St. Paul’s request to “encourage one another and build each other up” in Thessalonians 5:11
I remember from my own days as an international oarsman just how much top level athletes have to focus on themselves (and admittedly that of their crew) and their own needs and desires in order to truly excel. The sport (whichever it is) must take absolute priority to everything else and it can be extremely hard to see beyond it.
I particularly remember an occasion where a family funeral, lasting a long weekend as it was in The Highlands, was going to impact an important time-trial and there were certainly tensions. Fortunately on that occasion, we were all able to take a step back, see the ridiculousness of the situation and recognise that priorities had become unhealthy. Looking back on it now, I wonder to what extent my sport had become a form of idolatry and I wonder if elite Christian athletes today struggle with such issues.
The context of the Olympic games makes things more interesting. The ancient games were fundamentally pagan, with ritual sacrifices to Zeus being as important as the racing itself. It is understood to have come to an end at the end of the 4th century with a Roman ban on pagan practices. In founding the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin wanted the them to be religion-free, or more expressly “a religion above and outside the churches”. Yet the lighting of the olympic torch (an idea started by Hitler) begins in Athens with a prayer to the Gods Apollo and Zeus and since 1928 all gold medals bear the image of Nike, the goddess of victory. I find it a little distressing that this is the ultimate prize our elite athletes sacrifice so much in the pursuit of.
And so it is no surprise that Christians across the world, and especially in the United Kingdom, have been praying that God will be glorified through these games.
And there He was, right from the start…
Some struggle with the Hymn “Jerusalem”; I love it. Verse 1 reminds us of a time when Christianity was embedded in the heart of this country and verse 2 rousingly exhorts us to fight ceaselessly to bring Him back. Over the rest of the evening we also heard some great versions of “Guide me, oh thou great redeemer”, “Abide with me”, “Good Christian men rejoice”, and “The arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. As I tweeted at the time;
One other theme was the hilarious sketch around the music of Vangelis, “Chariots of fire” with its gentle but powerful reminder of the clear, simple and uncompromising faith of Eric Liddell. Since then the tune has been played with almost nauseating regularity; the witness of Liddell’s faith will simply not go away.
I was there when Team GB won their first gold medal. It was incredibly exciting as Glover and Stanning shot over the line and the atmosphere in the stands was fantastic… and yet He was also there in a very public way, as the British national Anthem played and we all broke into song praying for God’s blessings on the leadership of this nation. Like the National anthem or not, it is a prayer that calls on God by name three separate times in a single verse. It has been truly brilliant, with each gold medal we win (and we have won a lot so far), God’s name is invoked three-fold.
Despite my international rowing, I have never been a sportsman. I loved competing in my own sport but am not, as a rule, especially interested in others and did not even follow rowing (beyond the careers of my friends) with particular enthusiasm once I had given up. I have, however, been thoroughly enjoying these Olympics. I have been so impressed with the humility of most of those who have won their gold medals, and even more impressed with the grace of those that have not achieved the medal colour or success that the heightened expectations of a nation have heaped on them. I have enjoyed how patriotism, however jingoistic some might consider it, has been so healthy and unifying in our country the UK, when it is so often associated with drunken, aggressive and confrontational football supporters.
I recognise just how amazing an achievement it is to merely qualify for the olympics, let alone earn a medal. Yet Paul reminds us that in the race in which we all compete there is no finite number of gold medals, the everlasting prize is there for all those who have “not slept from endless fight”, have sacrificed much and have earned it. Therefore, “run in such a way as to get the prize”, 1Cor 9:24 (I wonder how many in ministry have preached on this text over the course of these weeks?)
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast” is one of Liddell’s famous quotes from the film and it resonates well with the muscular Christianity model. However, man’s striving to push the limits in the Garden of Eden led to the Fall and it was Cain’s competitiveness that led to the first murder. Is our curious and competitive nature help or hindrance in our walk with God? Or am I simply looking at all this just a little too confusedly?
I’m glad others are thinking about similar ideas, do have read of http://pickingapplesofgold.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/olympic-fever-and-being-christian.html