The Ideal Olympics

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The Ideal Olympics

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The Olympic Games are the greatest sporting event in the world. No matter how many championship titles an athlete racks up, to win at the Olympics is often considered to be the ultimate athletic achievement. In the intense pursuit of sporting excellence, stories of true sportsmanship shine.

The good side of the Olympics

One of the greatest examples is Emil Zatopek, the great Czech distance runner who gave away one of his prized gold medals.

Zatopek won gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics on the same day his wife won in the javelin competition. Husband and wife became the first and only married couple ever to win Olympic gold medals on the same day in separate events. He was already the hero of the ’52 games, with victories in the 10,000- and 5,000-meter events, when he decided to run the marathon, a race he had never run. During the marathon he asked another runner if the pace was too fast. The reply? It was too slow. So Zatopek upped his speed and won another gold!

Olympic gold had consistently eluded athlete Ron Clarke. Though he had set 18 world records, in his trips to the Olympics he had collected only a single bronze medal. One day while visiting with the Zatopeks, they gave Clarke a small box and told him not to open it until he was on his way home.

When Clarke finally opened the package, he found one of Zatopek’s gold medals. Attached was a card that read: “Dear Ron, I have won four gold medals. It is only right that you should have one of them. Your friend, Emil.” This exemplifies the spirit of sportsmanship—winning, with a willingness to share.

The dark side

Perhaps the shadowy, manipulative side of sports was worst reflected in the 1936 Olympics. Those summer games, the first-ever to be held in Germany, were used by the Nazi Party as a gigantic propaganda exercise. The attempt to prove the superiority of the “Aryan race” over athletes from other parts of the world was, however, undermined by the success of Jesse Owens, a black American who was the undisputed star of the Olympics.

At the 1972 Olympics Germany again became the focus of the dark side of sports. The expectant joy of those games was shattered when 11 athletes, five terrorists and a policeman were killed during the kidnapping of some Israeli athletes and the subsequent attempt to rescue them. The day after memorial services took place, competition continued, but with the Olympic flag at half-mast.

Olympic ideals are often in sharp contrast to reality. The Olympic motto, Citius, altius, fortius—swifter, higher, stronger—is all too often marred by nationalism’s dark side and the drive for accumulation of team medals. Commercialism has all but overwhelmed the intent of the modern Olympics as expressed by its founder, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He said something in 1908 that has become the modern Olympic Creed, displayed on the scoreboard at opening ceremonies:

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Tragically, the Olympics have become too much a reflection of man’s society and the evils that dog his good intentions.

Is sportsmanship losing ground?

How long has it been since you have seen a golfer fling his club after a bad stroke? Or witnessed a highly paid tennis player throw his racket to the ground, angrily hit a ball into the stands or challenge the referee? Or heard of an athlete accused of using performance-enhancing drugs or players fighting on the field? Sadly, we see these things all too often. Have we lost sight of de Coubertin’s ideals?

Positive examples give us heart. One of the great Golden Milers had an attitude toward athletics that made him a symbol of all that was good in sports. John Landy dominated Australian middle-distance running from 1952 to 1956 and was a central figure in the much-publicized quest to break the four-minute mile, along with Englishman Roger Bannister and American Wes Santee. Landy broke the world mile record in 1954.

In a race leading up to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, distance runner Ron Clarke fell. Landy, considering himself to be at fault, immediately stopped running to check on Clarke’s condition and to apologize. He resumed running to chase the field, regained the lead and went on to win. The delay probably cost him another world record.

This is what makes for excellence in sports: great athletes who are also great in character and humanity. We still see these traits exhibited occasionally, but all too rarely.

Is winning everything?

Sports fans love a winner. We feel exhilarated when our team plays in the Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup. Winning teams are in the media’s spotlight. Champagne and backslapping are the victor’s spoils.

Yet winning is often only the difference of a stroke, point, second or goal. Many believe winning is everything. Winning often takes precedence over a player’s health and injuries. Seeking to intimidate the opposition or deliberately trying to injure an opponent is becoming an accepted part of the game.

Defeat is often quiet and depressing. Heads are lowered. Feet dejectedly kick the turf. Some losers are not too graceful in defeat. Clubs and rackets are thrown in disgust. Knowing they can’t win, some resort to rough play to injure opponents.

Why do so many athletes exhibit such bad manners?

Well, the media does not help by describing teams in terms of the battlefield: crushed, blitzed, demoralized, flattened and devastated. Add to this a growing disrespect for rules and authority. Players argue with umpires and referees. Melees involving whole teams are commonplace. It’s little wonder children emulate adult stars and violence plagues youth sporting events as well.

Thankfully, some do take a stand against obnoxious players. Administrators, officials and the majority of athletes are concerned about violence but don’t know how to stop the mayhem. The motivation to win at any cost is too strong for most sports to change.

Many players lose more often than they win. Defeat is a frequent visitor in life, and we must come to terms with it. Humble in victory, gracious in defeat is a nice ideal, but one we rarely see in sports—or in life, for that matter.

The intertwined character traits involved in sports and life have not altered since the apostle Paul reflected on athletic training more than 1,900 years ago. He drew analogies from running and boxing, probably referring to the Isthmian Games of the city of Corinth.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “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, New International Version).

Paul considered the runner’s strict training, self-denial and focus on the finish line as requirements for spiritual endeavor as well. He saw that, although a runner’s discipline gained him only a wreath of wild celery that soon withered, the dedicated Christian strives for an imperishable crown.

Paul taught we should strive to win the race of life. But he knew there would be setbacks and short-term defeats along the way. He was a disciplinarian who could gracefully accept defeat or humbly savor the euphoria of a win. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound,” he said (Philippians 4:12). Defeat highlights the character of the players. Some give of their best, even shine in a losing battle.

We face defeat more often than we enjoy the triumph of victory. In the voyage of life, humility is a struggle because virtue isn’t financially rewarded, nor does it receive public acclaim. People would far sooner have the trophy, take the money and drink the champagne. We prefer heady glory to consoling words about bearing up in defeat.

Sportsmanship in the game of life

Many of these principles apply to everyday life. Whether we’re a participant or spectator, we can apply them by refusing to give in to temper, anger and the human desire to punch or strike back at another.

Develop greater skills to keep out of conflict and win by talent and ability. Some athletes are known for their fair play and self-control. Like them, be a good sport. Winning is a goal to strive for. But winning is laudable only if you can hold your head up in defeat.

Can we expect the trends toward more obnoxious behavior and increased disrespect for authority to continue? Biblical prophecy doesn’t suggest otherwise. Until man’s heart, mind and attitude change, his actions will not. Keeping a tight rein on your emotions takes character when you are provoked. It takes character to hold your head high when you’ve tasted setbacks and defeat.

Winning is fun, and being challenged by other skilled players helps bring out our best. The desire to win motivates us to work, run, row, bike or swim faster and longer than we have done before. Winning is also competing with yourself against the elements, the mountain or the sea.

Striving to win doesn’t have to mean animosity between opponents. The pregame psych-out too often leads to grudges settled on the playing field. If winning requires you to cheat, lose your temper, aggravate an injury, abuse the umpire or intimidate your opponent, what is the quality of your victory?

A better way

Although Olympic teams enter the stadium at the opening ceremony carrying their national flags, the closing ceremony is designed to highlight unity as if all the athletes belonged to one unified world. This concept came about because of 17-year-old John Ian Wing during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. During the days just before those games, the world was in turmoil. As teams made their way to Australia, Soviet tanks and troops entered Budapest to put down the Hungarian uprising.

A few days after the opening ceremony John Wing wrote a letter to the organizing committee; He suggested a different kind of march for the closing ceremony: “During the march there will be only one nation… What more could anybody want if the whole world could be made as one nation?”

So it was done, and this march with a different attitude has become a tradition that has lasted for all Olympic Games—athletes from many nations saying farewell as one body, instead of marching separately under their own national flags. What an inspiring thought about how sports could be in the prophesied world of tomorrow!

Most sporting careers are brief, but the game of life is both longer and far more important. We need to learn humility in victory and grace in defeat. If you can play fairly and in a good spirit, then you’ll have a good start in playing the more important game of life.

A Good Sport

Jesse Owens’ record of four track-and-field gold medals in the same Olympics held for 48 years until Carl Lewis duplicated the feat in 1984. But Owens almost didn’t get his fourth medal. His story highlights the sharing spirit of sportsmanship.

In the 1936 Berlin games, Owens had won three gold medals and was competing in the long jump. He had fouled twice with only three attempts allowed. The German champion came over to him and in broken English said: “Jesse, let me make a suggestion. I will place my towel a foot in front of the foul line and you can use this for your takeoff. You should then qualify easily.”

Owens took his advice, qualified and went on to win another gold. He recalled: “It was so gracious of him. After my victory he was the first one to greet me, and we walked arm in arm right in front of Hitler’s box.”

The Last Man in the Marathon

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics produced the story about the “Last Man in the Marathon.”

A little more than an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line, with only a few thousand spectators left in the stadium, the last runner finally arrived. With a leg bandaged and bloody, he made his painful way around the last lap.

In the press box a columnist wrote: “Today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit…[in a] a performance that gives true meaning to sport…a performance that lifts sport out of the category of grown men playing games…a performance that gives meaning to the word courage… All honor to John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.”

Afterward Akhwari was asked why he had endured the pain since there was no chance of winning. He simply said: “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.”