The Olympics and Learning to Limp

by Jason Overman

Like many, I watched some of the Olympics on TV over the past two weeks. The training and talent of the young athletes were breathtaking. Their vigor and vitality, to say nothing of their amazing feats, made me want to put on my running shoes, or swimsuit, and get outside — get in shape! It is the mastery of the competitors’ selected sport that is so inspiring, their complete devotedness and determination that make them the best in the world.

This summer Olympics was special to watch for another reason. The exotic Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, located between lush green mountains and the blue Atlantic Ocean, gave the games a stunningly picturesque backdrop. One image in particular stands out, or above, the rest. It seems as if Jesus was featured at nearly every commercial, or promo, break, with the famous 125 foot Christ the Redeemer statue rising magnificently — almost authoritatively — over Rio and the 2016 proceedings. It left me thinking.

It’s not the first time Jesus and the Olympics have been mixed up together. Almost two thousand years ago the missionary Paul brought his Galilean Savior into dialogue with those celebrated athletes from Olympia. He wrote to his new church in Corinth, Greece (only 115 miles east of Olympia) about the gospel of Christ, encouraging them to a new standard of excellence:

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 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV).

What if the monumental energy and focus, the unwavering dedication and fitness, of Olympians modern and ancient were steered toward the goal of God and His gospel? What if our admiration of the human spirit, mind, and body perfectly trained on that temporal finish line, was aimed at something higher, greater, than silver and gold? What if we were driven by admiration of the divine Spirit and a goal eternal?

That’s Paul’s point.

But there’s an irony, a paradox even greater than a statue of the crucified Redeemer looking down on a spectacle of human ambition and achievement, of sculpted bodies and confident minds. Why? Because Paul, an Olympian of religion in his former life, was keenly aware that true spiritual training in gospel living begins and ends with realizing our limitations and relying on the gracious gifts of Another.

Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, comes to mind. He was a clever and motivated man if there ever was. But it took a wrestling match with God to earn him a limp and leave him leaning on His Lord the rest of his life to become a hero of the faith. He lost that match yet won a new name: Israel (Genesis 32).

The warrior-king David also knew this race and the kind of conditioning it required. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17, NKJV). Jacob and David merely anticipated the gold-winning example of these paradoxical games of glory: Jesus Christ. The cross could not be a more upside-down view of victory, but there it is in all its humiliation and grandeur. He was crushed in every way humans measure defeat, but the Judge of all saw total triumph instead.

Olympians of faith follow the Galilean and take up His cross. They run with with a limp and lean on their Savior. Had the games been played in his day, perhaps Paul would have preferred the analogy of the Paralympics. In these contests, the broken and imperfect strive for mastery and race to win. Fewer viewers will tune in for these less glamorous and more sober games, though they represent superior success. They will be held in Rio too, under the watchful gaze of Christ the Redeemer, beginning September 7, 2016.

May we all run the race, and race to win, by God’s grace.