The Olympics

In Sermon Manuscripts by Rachel Schultz

The Olympics


Photo: Chad McDermott

Every four years the entire planet watches television. I hope a few of you will still study your Sabbath School lessons and turn off your television sets in order to celebrate the Sabbath, but for these next couple of weeks the Nielsen people figure that two-thirds of the world’s population will be tuned in to the 29th Olympiad, beaming around the globe on TV. We’re all thinking about Beijing, China and the races—the contests—the tournaments—the aching muscles—the new world records—and especially the gold medals.

For many thousands of eager, well-trained athletes, these next pivotal weeks represent everything they’ve ever worked and lived for.

Of course, you have a right to immediately ask me: “Pastor, we’re getting hundreds of hours of Olympic coverage on TV right now. Why are you getting into it from the pulpit as well?” It’s safe to say that all around the world, Olympic illustrations are bound to find their way into sermons and homilies. The gospel message translates into the world, the fabric, the very core of what we’re into even here in the year 2008. The story of Jesus Christ comes out of 31 A.D., spans the centuries, and applies to right now, today. But it’s still the challenge of Christian preachers to link eternal truths to the down-to-earth realities society is paying attention to in OUR world. And this week, that’s the Olympic Games.

The Bible talks about races and training 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. And so this week, I’m going to ask: what’s happening on the other side of the world in Beijing that can have meaning to the searching Christian? What can we learn from these athletes?

Actually, the Olympic Games have a long history of spiritual significance. Did you know that? 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.

You and I almost forget the “policy” that, 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 then every sportswriter goes on to concede that everybody around the world also does count up the medal totals for nations. The networks do, 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? It’s the same thing in Canada and all around the globe. Athletes from the tiniest, most obscure nation know that they’re running, not just for themselves, but for everyone back home. They’re running for God and King, as the old expression goes.

Which leads us to one of our favorite verses here at this church, especially this week. It’s found in Matthew 5:16, and Jesus Himself encourages us with a lofty reason why we should always do our best: “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? Yes, I believe it is. In a way, that verse says to me: “Train hard! Work hard! Perform to your peak! Live a life of faithful obedience. Then make sure God receives the glory. ”

A delightful story comes to us out of the 1972 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,” Ben 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.”

This fascinating book was compiled quite a few years ago, so I don’t know the latest on these two outstanding Christians, but at that time Ben was teaching religion and coaching wrestling at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin, and his brother John was working in Austria with a mission group.

Well, a story like that moves us . . . and this is one of just hundreds of athletes who consider the costs and the toil of training, and then decide that if they can compete for God, then it’s worth it. There’s one that Christians everywhere love and revisit often: how a faithful believer named Eric Liddell traveled to the 1924 games in Paris, and then would not run on his Sabbath. He faced tremendous national pressure to compromise his beliefs, and participate in a qualifying heat in violation of his conscience. But he 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 DVD players after watching Chariots of Fire, and say, “Well, very nice. Good movie. Oscar-winning best picture.”

But listen, this Matthew 5:16 moment really did happen 84 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 as they had dinner after church one weekend: “Run in God’s name, Eric, and the world will stand back in wonder.”

In a Newsweek cover article that came out just before the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia, there was a sidebar piece about Gwen Torrence, who was scheduled to compete 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.

Now, some of us sitting here this morning, as we looked in the mirror before driving to church today, probably didn’t exactly see an Olympic-caliber athlete. You don’t have a plane ticket in your pocket for Beijing, and London may not figure very highly in your Year 2012 plans. When they compile the Olympic list of the top athletes, 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.

You folks know that I treasure my life and ministry here at this church, and my work among you is generally quite comfortable. But I have heard stories of ministers who labored to exhaustion to cover three or even four churches at a time. You can go over to the Philippines where hard-working, energetic ministers are serving up to twenty Adventist congregations. They put-put from one congregation to another on a little motor scooter, dodging potholes and rainy monsoon clouds, and they take home maybe $225 a month.

And I want to tell you something. These great men and women are Olympic champions. They are! No, they’re not on television all this week with a billion 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 deliver two and three sermons 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.

It’s important for all of us who are athletes on God’s global playing field to also notice this powerful Bible reality: when we compete to honor heaven, then it becomes much less important that we compete with—or should we say, against—one another.

Here’s a scenario that might happen to any one of us.

Sarah had just put her two kids to bed one night when the phone rang. Her best friend, Ricki, was on the line almost exploding in anger. Someone at work had campaigned and twisted the regulations and bent the company code and fattened up her resumé to where she had gotten a raise—and Ricki hadn’t. Now, Ricki and Sarah were both Christians, both with a commitment to resolving feelings and frustrations in a Christlike manner but this frustrated co-worker was just about ready to chuck the whole thing. How could something so unfair have happened? Her ten-minute tirade was actually laced with a few profanities and X-rated words.

After the phone call finally came to an end, Sarah sat on the couch and just stared out the window for a few minutes. What could she do? It was tempting to stir the pot, to get on the phone herself and call some other friends. “Did you hear the latest?” That kind of thing. Instead, Sarah walked over to the window, looked up at the starry skies outside, and breathed a prayer: “Lord, help me to help Ricki right now. She’s my friend—and she’s so angry. Show me what to do to help her resolve her situation.” It was a moment for two followers of Jesus Christ to stand shoulder to shoulder against a common foe.

True, the Olympics are generally about competition and beating other people. I win a gold medal by making sure that someone else doesn’t win one. Every medal the Russians take back home to Moscow is one less for the U.S, so we want our athletes to use any trick, any psychological warfare, grab any possible edge. That’s the way the game is played.

And yet, even in the Olympic Games, the greatest athletic showcase of talent in the world, the most prestigious sporting event on this planet, there are shining examples of athletes who were brilliant competitors . . . but still found a way to reflect what you and I would call the Christian ideal. They discovered—as Ricki and Sarah did—the glory of mutual support and comradeship.

Many of you who have watched the Games through the years have seen how good Jackie Joyner-Kersee was as she competed in the heptathlon, that mix of seven grueling events. Over on the other side of what used to be the Cold War Wall, an East German woman named Heike Drechsler was Jackie’s main competition, especially in the long jump. Well, back in the old communist-capitalist rivalry years, one of Drechsler’s East German teammates would start up a practice run on a parallel track every single time Jackie sprinted toward the long-jump pit. It was a deliberate little move, just a snippet of psyching out designed to distract Joyner-Kersee that tiniest bit, maybe throw her timing off. Well, Heike Drechsler finally went over to her own teammate and told her, “Las das in ruhe!” Which translated means “Hey, cut that out!” In other words, knock off the gamesmanship. The American was too fine, she said, their rivalry too pure, for it to be tarnished. And Jackie agrees. “There is no animosity between us,” she tells reporters. “Only respect.”

In Frank Zarnowski’s colorful sports book, The Decathlon, he relates a fascinating account of the past hundred years and the people who compete against each other in this ten-event competition. In summation, he makes this observation: “The decathlon is the most social of track events and promotes a strong sense of camaderie among contestants. There is a lot of time to visit during and between events, much of which is used in HELPING other participants. Athletes will give and take advice, analyze each other’s technique, assist each other in locating and checking take-off points, and even use each other’s personal equipment.”

One of America’s favorite stories took place in 1960, when Rafer Johnson, a decathlon athlete for the U.S., and Taiwan’s C. K. Yang were actually teammates at UCLA, helping each other, lifting each other up. Finally, in that last race in Rome, the murderous 1500-meter, Rafer had to beat his good friend. Later in the dressing room, he said, so exhausted he could hardly talk: “I wanted that one real bad. But I never want to go through that again—never. I’m awfully tired.” Then he looked over at Yang. “But so’s he.”

Yang managed a tired smile and just said this: “Nice going, Rafe.”

And you know, all the moments of sportsmanship we see in Beijing in these next exciting days are a lesson to those of us who are Christians. Silver-medal winners reach up and shake the hand of the gold-medal winner, the athlete standing one level above them. “Congratulations.” And they mean it! For four years they might have trained and worked with fierce intensity to beat that very person! They’ve carried that person’s face around in their dreams ever since Athens. “I’ve got to beat Vladimir!” But somehow, most of the time, at least, these athletes find it within themselves to be gracious and supportive. “Good going. Great race! Watch out, ‘cause I’ll beat you in London, but that was a great race. Congratulations!”

I say again, what a lesson for those of us who are believers!

There’s a marvelous Olympic story of sorts to be found in the Bible book of Luke. It’s a Thursday evening, in fact, it’s the Thursday evening right before Gethsemane. And there in the Upper Room as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Jesus turns to Peter, one of the intense competitors of all time, and tells him this: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” Now listen to this: “And when you have turned back, STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS.”

Folks, those last three words just mean the world to me. “Strengthen your brothers.” When you compete in the Games, help other people. If you’re a great runner, help those who aren’t quite as good. If you can run 26 miles 385 yards without even breathing hard, reach out and lend a hand to somebody else who’s thinking of quitting. If someone ahead of you is getting a gold medal, pat them on the back and praise God for how He’s blessed them. If you have a Christian brother whose work situation is causing them angst and spiritual despair, give them a positive word from Jesus about love and forgiveness and the power of heaven to right all wrongs.

As we look through the annals of Olympic history, one quiet, little-known story probably says the most to me about camaraderie and sportsmanship. The 1912 Games in Stockholm were dominated by a big Indian athlete from Oklahoma and a tiny place in Pennsylvania called the Carlisle Indian School. Later voted “Athlete of the First Half-Century”—take note, Michael Jordan—Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe breezed to an easy victory in the decathlon with a huge 688-point margin, and also triumphed in the pentathlon. “It was like picking strawberries out of a dish for Jim,” wrote a reporter.

Then tragedy struck. One year later someone discovered that Thorpe had once played some semipro baseball for a few bucks in North Carolina. That made him a pro, not an amateur, and in one of the rawest deals ever handed down, his gold medals from the Olympic Games were taken away from him. In fact, all his prizes from Stockholm were rudely snatched away, including the silver model of a Viking ship presented to him with the compliments of Czar Nicholas of Russia for his Olympic wins. It wasn’t until 1982, 29 years after Jim Thorpe had died a discouraged man, that the gold medals were finally returned to his family and his name reinstated in the record books. If you find an almanac printed during the “gap” years, his name just plain isn’t listed. For nearly 70 years he’d been expunged from athletic history.

But now here’s the part of the story that means so much to me as a Christian. The Olympic Committee came to the Swedish hero, Karl Hugo Wieslander, who had come in second in the decathlon event. “Congratulations,” they told him. “Now you’re the first-place winner. Thorpe’s out; you get the gold medal.”

But here is the inspiring thing. Wieslander isn’t known as much for his Olympic prowess as he is for the fact that he said to the IOC committee: “No thank you.” He refused to accept Thorpe’s medal; he wouldn’t take it. He was too much of a sportsman, a gentleman. “The medal belonged to the best man,” he said simply.

In fact, there’s even one more quiet chapter I would like to share with you this morning. Twelve years after refusing the medal, Wieslander traveled all the way from Sweden to the United States to try and find his former competitor. He was touring with a Stockholm choir and wanted to bring encouragement to Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately, Thorpe had just been cut by a New York football team, and Wieslander was unable to locate him. But here was a quiet man, not seeking headlines, refusing a title and a medal that wasn’t his, simply doing the right thing. In fact, Wieslander himself didn’t tell anyone of his search until 46 years later, in 1971.

Who will Sports Illustrated give the title of “GREAT” to as the Beijing Games draw to a close? Who will be draped with the most gold medals and receive the most thunderous applause?  You don’t know and I don’t know. But as far as I’m concerned, you can put down a name like “Wieslander” right now. I look at precious vignettes like these, little human experiences where an athlete maybe even looked in his Bible and saw those three words: “Strengthen Your Brothers.” Perhaps Wieslander read that biblical command and said to himself: “I think this means me.”

All through the pages of God’s Word, we find the highest statements of praise offered for those who put self aside and lift up their hurting brothers and sisters. Who seek excellence in their performance and their service because that honors the King of kings.

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