By Gabriel García Valdivieso
The latest Olympic games held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had some truly exciting moments. Athletes from 28 sports and 41 disciplines amazed us with their talent, audacity, perseverance, and physical and mental prowess. We were left breathless before the feats of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Kipchoge and the other African athletes in the long-distance races, Mariana Pajón in the BMX race, the US basketball Dream Team, agile Caterine Ibargüen in the triple jump, Paula Pareto in judo, and the Argentine men’s field hockey team, among others. Yet, in my opinion, there was an aspect of these Olympic competitions that shone even brighter than the medals—the role that faith played in the lives and sports careers of many of the participants.
Does faith play an important part in our performance, and more specifically, in the world of sports?
I am an enthusiastic follower of the Olympics. At every available moment I glue myself to the television screen, hoping to not miss an event. For years now I have watched the Olympics, and I can testify that during these last games I witnessed more expressions of faith by the competitors than I had ever seen before. Let’s look at some of them.
The Ethiopian athlete, Almaz Ayana, beat the record for the 10,000 meter track competition by an amazing 14 seconds. So incredible was her feat that immediately suspicions arose of cheating. The athlete serenely affirmed, “My doping is my training and my doping is Jesus. Nothing otherwise—I am crystal clear.”
The story of swimmer Michael Phelps is iconic. Though he had celebrated unprecedented wins in previous Olympics, he became disillusioned to the point of contemplating suicide. He was in the midst of these dark times when a friend gave him a copy of the widely acclaimed book by Christian author Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life. Hope was restored and his life put victoriously back on track with a newfound connection with God.
Few anticipated a silver medal for the Colombian light flyweight boxer, Yuberjen Martínez. When his mother was interviewed regarding her son’s audacious feat, she explained that years ago she had conversed with God. She told Him, “Lord, I give You this child. Do with him as You will.”
Jamaican Omar McLeod won the 110 meter hurdles with a good margin, breaking out in praise as he crossed the finish line, shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus!”
Simone Manuel set a new Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle swimming. She is the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming competition. After the race she said in tears, “All I can say is all glory to God.” Another promising American swimmer who has won several gold medals is Katie Ledecky. She proclaims that her faith “is part of who I am.”
The Fiji rugby team won the first gold medal in the history of their country when they beat all their strong competitors, including England with a score of 43 to 7. At the end of the game the team united in singing the hymn “We Have Overcome.” The lyrics proclaim, “We have overcome, we have overcome. By the blood of the Lamb and the Word of the Lord, we have overcome.”
Why would faith be important in sports? I think that it has something to do with stamina, balance, well-being, and the optimism that it provides. In fact, this is true for any challenge that we take on. The Bible reiterates this: the psalmists sang, “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer.”1 “How happy are those whose strength is in you, whose heart is on your path.”2 “Power belongs to God.”3
When we recognize our weaknesses and insufficiencies, we are open to receive our strength from God. “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”4 What a promise to claim before a contest! Believers know this secret by spiritual instinct. We give all the human effort that we are able, and the rest we leave in God’s hands. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”5
The apostle Paul often compared the Christian’s life with a great race. It is what we could call spiritual athletics. Referring to himself, he said, “I do not consider that I have made it my own yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the heavenly prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”6
Most likely the success of the faith-professing athletes, or any of us who lean on God in our enterprises, is that we have higher heavenly goals that are not limited to earthly honors. This brings to mind the apostle’s words:
“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. 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. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”7
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”8
1 Psalm 18:32–33 NIV.
2 Psalm 84:5 ISV.
3 Psalm 62:11 NASB.
4 Isaiah 40:29–31 NIV.
5 Proverbs 21:31 ESV.
6 Philippians 3:13–14 AMP.
7 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 NASB.
8 Hebrews 12:1–2 KJV.