Olympic Lessons – Running the Spiritual Race

Joy and Sorrow on the Gold Medal Mat by Larry Slater
Joy and Sorrow on the Gold Medal Mat by Larry Slater

The Summer Olympics is a singularly unique time every four years when the world fixes its eyes on athletes who have trained a lifetime, many of them, for one Olympic moment. Other competitions pale in comparison to the Olympics. The world tunes in to watch sports that can’t fill the seats at any other time.

As a child, the kids in my neighborhood created our own “Olympic games”. We played out the drama of agonizing defeats and thrilling victories. The Olympic games capture the attention and imaginations of all people. Many, many people dream of Olympic glory as children, and some few talented individuals among us dream those dreams in real life.

The sacrifices of an Olympic athlete are tremendous. To achieve the pinnacle of human athletic accomplishment, the Olympic athlete must train harder, longer and more effectively than all the other athletes in the world who have similar Olympic dreams. The dedication of the athlete and follower of Christ are similar journeys.Raw talent must be developed, painstakingly, hour after lonely hour in repetition and more grueling repetition until the body is honed into a singularly effective machine to accomplish one athletic feat better than any other person in the world.

Wresting was my sport. Wrestling is unique because the feat to be accomplished can only be accomplished in direct opposition to another person. In combat sports, hurdles, times and distances are not goals or obstacles; another person stands in the way who is just as dedicated to your failure as you are to your success.

Like all other sports, only one person wins.

The Olympic games are a good analogy to the spiritual life. Olympic dreams are about accomplishing goals with tremendous dedication against great odds and formidable opposition. Much of that opposition,even with combat sports,  comes from ourselves. We fight against lack of motivation, lack of discipline, inconsistency, lack of focus, distraction, numerous defeats along the way, discouragement and many, many other things that pull us away or block the way to the end that we would like to achieve.

The end of spiritual life is to hear the Father say, “Well done faithful servant.”[1] The victory is to do the Father’s will to the end.[2] There are thousands of distractions that threaten to get us off this track.

As lofty and worthy a goal an Olympic gold medal is, how much greater is our eternal destiny? Paul urges us to run the spiritual race to win.

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize[3]? 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….”[4]

Of key importance is self-control. Take some time to listen to an Olympic athlete who just accomplished what no other American woman has ever done. Helen Maroulis won an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling, on August 18, 2016, and she beat the most decorated woman wrestler in history to do it.

I know Helen so her story is particularly compelling to me. I think it will be for you as well.

Her dream of the Olympics began when she was 8. Four years ago, she fell short, and she didn’t even make the Olympic team. She was the favorite, but her heart was broken in 2012 when she didn’t qualify.

Over the next four years, she would not relax her grip on that dream. Her story is a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he urges us to “run that you may win”.

She orientated her entire life to accomplish the goal, including who she lived with, her coaches, her lifestyle, what she ate – everything.

For wrestlers, training means controlling weight, eating right. Being utterly disciplined in that respect can mean the difference between victory and defeat. For Helen Maroulis, this meant dropping down a weight class when the Olympic weight classes changed. As Paul says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave”.

Every aspect of the Olympic athlete’s life, including eating, relationships, literally everything, must be disciplined to achieve the end goal. The same is true in our spiritual lives. We cannot live for God unless we have disciplined ourselves to that end, surround ourselves with people who are of a like mind, and orientate ourselves in every way to the end goal. We must ever keep the end in mind.

When a person is absolutely dedicated to one goal, that goal defines your life, and your life revolves around that one goal. That includes giving back, teaching and inspiring and training others. It means demonstrating to others the discipline that is necessary to be successful and motivating others who are also striving for the goal. This is directly applicable to our spiritual lives in Christ. We don’t live for God in a vacuum. We need other people, and other people need us.

We must take one day at a time. Wrestling, as with any other passionate, dedicated endeavor, can be something that God uses to work in our lives. For Helen, wrestling is the means by which God has done his work in her. Through her trials and tribulations, reaching for a goal that God put into her heart, she came to rely on God. Even striving for earthly prizes can be fertile soil for God’s work in our lives if we keep everything in the right perspective.

Helen achieved her goal of making the 2016 Olympic team. It isn’t always an easy ride. God worked in her along the way. Among other things, she discovered that she needed to forgive herself for failing in 2012. God forgives us; who are we not to forgive ourselves? Receiving and accepting what God freely gives us frees us to be who He meant us to be.

Helen not only qualified for the Olympics by winning the US Olympic Trials, she became the first United States woman ever to win a gold medal in freestyle wrestling in the Olympics. Not only that, but she beat a legend, Saori Yoshida, who had won 13 world gold medals and the last three Olympic gold medals.

I know this is long, but I’m not done yet. There is another side, and the most important takeaway is yet to come.

Adeline Gray and Jordan Burroughs were the two US wrestlers poised on the edge of destiny and legendary greatness in wrestling entering the Rio Olympic games.

Adeline was supposed to be the first US woman wrestler to win Olympic gold. She was a three time world champ. She was heavily favored to win. She didn’t have a Yoshida in the way of her destiny. But she didn’t make it out of the quarterfinals. She was upset and never got the chance to fulfill her destiny.

Jordan Burroughs has been the face of US wrestling since winning gold in London in 2012. The only time in the last four years that he didn’t sit on top of the world was the year he hurt his knee, But even that year, he still managed a bronze. He had one loss only at the world level, and that was with a bad knee. He wrestled one year 5 weeks after shattering his ankle, had surgery and a pin to hold his ankle together, and he still managed a world gold medal.

Jordan was destined for greatness. He was already great. He was destined to be the greatest, and Rio would solidify what everyone already knew…. Except, it didn’t. Jordan lost.

Unbelievably, he lost. He wrestled the #2 guy in the world in quarterfinals, and he lost by one point…. and, then he lost again! He didn’t even win a bronze medal. The result is heartbreaking for such a talented, dedicated really decent guy.

“Life is difficult and humbling and excruciating. And then it isn’t. You’re 28 years old. You’re a world-class athlete. You know this. You know the two men who beat you today, Aniuar Geduev of Russia in the quarterfinals and Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan, wanted to win every bit as much as you did. You know they’ve spent four years away from home, cutting weight, running, getting up early, too. You know they wanted to be revered eternally, and you know they didn’t want to lose, either. Both of them did. Geduev could have won a gold medal. He didn’t. Abdurakhmonov could have won bronze. He didn’t.” (An Open Letter to Jordan Burroughs from Your Newest Admirer)

There are no guarantees in life, even if you’re the greatest. Even if you’re the greatest man, or woman, you are still only a fleeting mist in the eons of time. As great as the greatest man or woman is in the field of human achievement, that momentary glory is washed quickly away in the cast expanse of time and space in an infinitely expanding universe. For God, who rescues us from meaninglessness and despair, human achievement, and the striving for human achievement is of no value…, except for what it allows God to do in our hearts and lives.

The only thing that ultimately matters is the eternal work of God in the human soul and spirit. The race that matters most, and the only race that matters in the end, is the upward call of God.

“[F]orgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal[5] for the prize[6] of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”[7]


[1] Matthew 25:21, 23.

[2] “[H]old fast to what you have until I come. And to the one who is victorious and continues in My work until the end, I will give authority over the nations.” (Rev. 2:25-26)  “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne….” (Rev. 3:21)

[3] 1017/Brabeíon means, literally, the prize awarded to a victor, the reward the follows triumph. It is figuratively the reward given to those believers who “fight the good fight”. (1 Tim. 6:12)

[4] 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

[5] 4649/Skopós (the root of the English term, “scope,” like the zoom-scope on a rifle to hit the target) – properly, it means the “end-marker” of a foot-race. The word is only used once in the New Testament. In the classics, it is used of a mark for shooting at, a target. Figuratively, it means a goal, an end that it is to be achieved. For the believer, the end goal is God’s approval and acceptance into an eternal relationship with the Father.

[6] This is the same word, 1017/brabeíon, used in 1 Corinthians 9:24.

[7] Philippians 3:13-14

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