The 2016 Summer Olympics 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. 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.
I’m an enthusiastic fan of the Olympics. For years now, I’ve watched the Olympics, and I can testify that during these last Games, I’ve witnessed more expressions of faith by the competitors than ever before. Let’s look at some of them.
The Ethiopian athlete Almaz Ayana amazingly beat the record for the 10,000-meter track competition by 14 seconds. So incredible was her feat that suspicions of cheating arose immediately. But the athlete serenely affirmed, “My doping is my training and my doping is Jesus. Nothing otherwise—I am crystal clear.”
The story of the 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, The Purpose-Driven Life. Hope was restored and his life was 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 before she’d told God, “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!”
Simone Manuel set a new Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle swimming. She was the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming competition. After the race, she testified: “All I can say is all glory to God.” Another promising American swimmer who won several gold medals is Katie Ledecky. She proclaims that 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 43 to 7. At the end of the game, the team united in singing a hymn that includes the line, “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 it provides. In fact, this is true for any challenge that we take on. The Bible reiterates this; the psalmist 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’re 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. 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 life to a race. It’s what we could call spiritual athletics. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call 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 due to the fact that we have higher heavenly goals that are not limited to earthly honors. This brings to mind the apostle’s words:
“Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”7
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”8