The Games of the 29th Olympiad began yesterday in Beijing, China with a spectacle of light and drama and technology unmatched by any opening games. There were presidents, prime ministers, athletes, and other dignitaries in attendance to witness the affair live, while those of us more than half a world away watched in taped delay. As I watched the preliminary coverage of the Olympics leading up to yesterday, I was struck by how little respect the games are garnering from the national media. They are a blip on the radar screen. Allegations of doping by athletes, the political strife surrounding China’s government, the pollution, all have overshadowed the coverage leading to the opening ceremonies…
But for me the Olympics are special… no because of the international political implications… not because of the harmony they supposedly produce… no for me it reminds me the importance of competition for the sake of competition.
The first Olympics I have any memory of was the ’88 Games in Seoul. Then ’92 in Barcelona, ’96 in Atlanta, and on and on… I remember names like Kerri Strug, Michael Johnson, the Dream Team, and the other celebrities that were born from those games… but I also remember watching the truly obscure sports… badminton, judo, beach volleyball, field hockey, rhythmic gymnastics… and the list goes on and on… I mean, these are sports I didn’t know existed outside the Olympic games. Before I watched the Olympics I thought ping pong was little more than an adolescent basement game, but in the Olympics I found it was table tennis.
I have the sports that I really love to keep track of… track and field, basketball, soccer, gymnastics… but even now, at 28 I still find myself watching the weirdest things, simply because it is the Olympics. This morning, I found myself watching, now get this… women’s team handball Angola v. France… seriously… It’s the competition I love.
It may not seem like a very Christian thing to admire… sports and competition, but Paul saw Christian ministry very much in terms of competition…
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
This always begs the question for me: who are we competing against? Certainly not against other Christians… or other churches… and certainly not against God. The purest form of competition is the competition one feels against the self. I think that is what Paul is talking about here. We work, in the power of Christ, so that we will be qualified for the prize that Christ has already gained for us. Not to earn something, but to work for the glory of the one who had already earned it all on our behalf.
I heard a statistic during the opening ceremonies that really struck me. Something like 87% of all the countries that compete in the Olympics have never won an Olympic medal. Never. Now, I don’t know where that statistic came from, and I can’t back it up for myself, but even if it is only partially accurate then that means that the majority of the athletes that go all the way to China have little chance of standing on a podium… and even fewer of hearing their national anthems played for them. So, why do they go? Because they have trained and beat their bodies to gain a prize that comes from competing against themselves.
How much do we train ourselves for our Christian lives and ministry? Do we feel like we will gain the spiritual maturity we hope for just by falling into it? We have to foster a sense of competition in ourselves to build up our faith, so that when life comes at us with both fists we will be ready.