I know, that sounds like an odd question. But there’s a point to it, I promise.
Why do we watch the Olympics? Part of it, of course, as with any sport, is to root for our side. We identify with our team and want to see them do well and win (which, if we’re honest, also means to some extent that we want their opponents to show their inferiority and lose). Their victory is somehow our victory. More generously, we may simply appreciate an athlete’s prowess regardless of national origin: the long, fluid strides of a runner gliding to the finish line; the blinding speed of Olympic table tennis; the acrobatic grace and power of the diving and gymnastic competitions.
This year’s finals in the men’s horizontal bar was a case in point. The impossibly well-muscled Fabian Hambuechen of Germany strung together two difficult, gravity-defying moves in a stunning and nearly flawless performance. He looked unbeatable. But then came Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands, who put three unbelievable moves back to back, stealing the gold.
I’ve never been on a high bar, and all I know of the Netherlands is the inside of the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. But that didn’t stop me from pumping my fists in the air when Zonderland stuck that perfect landing. Oh my.
And then there are those inspiring moments of indomitable Olympic spirit. Oscar “The Blade Runner” Pistorius of South Africa comes to mind–the paraplegic track star who made the semifinals of the men’s 400m. In an ironic twist on attitudes toward the disabled, Pistorius has had to endure much controversy over whether his prosthetic blades give him an unfair advantage over runners who only have real legs to work with. In the end, Pistorius failed to make it out of the semis. But in a touching display of solidarity and respect, front-runner and eventual gold medalist Kirani James of Grenada came to Pistorius and exchanged bibs, bearing away Pistorius’ name as a memento.
Now that’s the Olympic spirit. Times two.
We are creatures of flesh and blood, muscle and bone. And we are creatures of spirit. In the Olympics, we see some of the best of both worlds. Athletes of all backgrounds and nationalities impress us with their speed and agility, their fortitude, resilience, and determination. Many of them probably don’t believe much in a Creator. But we who do can celebrate all these things in good conscience, because they point us in their own way to the wonders God made us to be.
Think of the creation story, and how God pronounced each day’s work good. Is it too odd or whimsical to think that God might say “That’s good!” of a race well run or a pinpoint dive? I’m reminded of Olympian and missionary-to-be Eric Liddell, whose life was portrayed in the 1982 Best Picture Chariots of Fire. In the most memorable line from that film, Liddell said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure.” And why not? That’s good.
I don’t mean to imply that Olympic competition is all light and virtue; there are those who don’t just want to do well, but to crush their rivals, and those whose egos can fill a stadium and then some. But that shouldn’t erase our appreciation for seeing the best of what God empowered these human bodies of ours to do. It can sweeten our hope of the resurrection, and help us remember the value of every human being, every wondrous embodied spirit.
I can easily imagine that something of what we see in the Olympics, cleansed of the corruption of sin, will survive into the resurrection life that awaits us on a redeemed earth. And we might say the same of many other earthly endeavors. It’s something to look forward to.
An actual heavenly Olympiad? Well, I’m not ready to go quite that far. But who knows. If there is, I might even try the horizontal bar. And I won’t give a second thought to how ridiculous I might look.