I love the Olympics. I mean it, I am a total Olympics junkie. I told my TiVo to record every bit of Olympics coverage it could find on my extended basic cable, and if it had to record over Dirty Jobs to bring me curling and women’s ice hockey then so be it! I mean, it’s the Olympics! It’s amazing competition, patriotism, and zany sports all rolled up into one giant consumerist package.
I even love the Winter Olympics, though I live in Phoenix where it hasn’t snowed since before the Flood so the summer games are closer to my heart. Last night we watched the skiing moguls finals and talked about how the participants must require knee replacements at 35. We watched the short program in pairs figure skating too, which is of course among the most popular. (One parenthetical request, please, Olympic skaters: stop dressing the men in blouses. Just stop it. Be theatrical, but dress the men somewhat remotely like men rather than in flowing ruffles)
We watched the biathlon, which had to be a drunken bet at some point. Can you imagine a bunch of fraternity brothers at the Kappa Sigma house at North Dakota State University (I am making this all up as I go) wondering how they can get away with taunting the pledges without getting caught and coming up with this? “I know guys…we’ll make up this sport where they will have to ski cross country for a few miles with a gun strapped to their back, then shoot some really small targets while prone, ski some more then shoot targets kneeling, and finally ski a bunch more then hit tiny targets while standing. Only the best get in!”
In reality I love the Olympics for the drama of world-class athletes competing their hearts out on a world stage. The difference between the gold medal and last place is hundredths of a second, fractions of a point. The athletes have trained for a MINIMUM of four years for this event, and many have trained for over a decade or more. They are the very best at what they do, competing head to head for a victor’s medal. Add in the patriotic angle of national medal counts and I am in!
The Olympics weren’t foreign to the world of the New Testament, either. Far from it, they originated before Jesus’ time and were important civic festivals. The Olympic Games were the most celebrated, but right behind them in importance in first-century Greece were the Isthmian Games. These games were played near Corinth, and Paul used them as an image his readers would have been well-familiar with in his description of what the Christian life looks like:
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;
27 but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
Paul drew on this athletic contest to describe what living for Christ looks like. He gives us the same ethic that drives Olympic athletes: “Run in such a way that you may win.” Athletes who dog it never make it to the big games; likewise we will never reach our potential to glorify God by running our race without energy, enthusiasm, and tenacity.
I love the combination of images in this passage. First of all Paul reminds us that the “victor’s wreath” of the games was perishable. While a gold medal isn’t as perishable as a wreath, can you name the women’s figure skating champion from the last winter games without Googling it? (ten bucks says that after googling you STILL don’t know who won it) Exactly…very perishable. The wreath we strive for, though, will be eternal! The reward of a life lived for Christ will be a faithful evaluation from Him on judgment day and the opportunity to serve Him in big ways for all time.
Paul also says that winning takes discipline. Participants have to discipline their bodies to compete at the highest levels, but their discipline pays off at the competition! I reminded a lot of the runners at the marathon Laura ran this past weekend that if it was easy anyone would do it, and that is Paul’s idea here. Competing in the games means training hard and playing according to the rules. It’s not a safe endeavor to push the limits of greatness, but Olympians compete to show what total dedication and commitment can do.
It takes discipline to train and discipline to compete, but the rewards are worth it! Likewise in the Christian life, the discipline and dedication it takes to live life for Christ are not “easy.” Living in the grace of God means denying ourselves and living for Him. It means saying “no” to our own temptations, our own goals, our own rights and instead making the goal of greatness more important than complacency or being “normal.” However, the rewards are worth it. Hearing “well done, good and faithful servant!” will FAR overshadow any playing of the national anthem in Vancouver this winter.
So enjoy the next 10 days of Olympics. Cheer for the participants. Root on the home town heroes and the underdogs. But while watching, remember the application to your walk with Christ and the lesson of the cost of competing on a world stage. In the Olympics there can be only one gold medalist, but in Christ anyone with the desire and the dedication can stand side by side on the top of the podium, receiving the crown to cast at the feet of Christ.