The Summer Olympics at Rio are now history (although the closing ceremony is still taking place as I write). There was plenty of gold on offer, and plenty of glory, but what I want to emphasise here is the fact that to a great degree, there was also plenty of God on display as well, as various athletes gave God the ultimate glory for their success.
Quite a few athletes were not shy about praising God and giving him the credit for what they were able to achieve. I will single out quite a number of these folks in a moment. But it was not all glorious and glamorous at the games of course. Crime in Rio seemed to be a regular problem, with even various athletes being victims.
And some athletes were suspended or disqualified for different reasons, including because of drug testing results. Indeed, large hunks of the Russian team never even made it to Rio because of doping problems. Examples of poor sportsmanship – to say the least – could be seen throughout the Olympics as Muslim athletes treated Israeli athletes very poorly indeed.
And nights of wild partying by some athletes after their events have led to some bad outcomes, including police investigations about lying and duplicitous US swimmers. And a number of Australian athletes and medallists faced disciplinary measures or even lost a chance to join in the closing ceremony because of similar excesses and misdemeanours.
So it was not all very glorious with the best of human abilities and achievements at times matched by some rather poor performances and attitudes. But it was a remarkable 16 full days, with plenty of records broken and plenty of medals distributed.
The final tally showed a few countries doing very well indeed. Here are the top five nations, with gold, silver, bronze and total medal count:
USA 46, 37, 38 = 121
Great Britain 27, 23, 17 = 67
China 26, 18, 26 = 70
Russia 19, 18, 19 = 56
Germany 17, 10, 15 = 42
Australia finished in ninth place with 8, 11, 10 = 29
And Brazil, the host nation, finished in 13th place with 7, 6, 6 = 19
All up there were 306 medal events held. We had plenty of amazing stories of Olympic greatness, but so many of them included a clear spiritual element. Just consider people like Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who won 9 gold medals in three Olympics, winning all of his events three times over.
As one article said about his faith: “Usain Bolt’s faith in Jesus Christ has always played a prominent role in his life and success. His parents, Wellesley and Jennifer Bolt, instilled him with a devout Christian faith. Bolt prays before every race, and immediately praises God when he’s finished. His strong Christian upbringing equipped him with the desire, discipline and dedication to become the Olympic legend he is today.”
Michael Phelps also did remarkably well, winning more gold than any other human being in history, and likely keeping that honour for some time to come. I wrote him up earlier: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/08/11/phelps-gold-standard/
In that article I wrote about how he overcame depression and suicidal tendencies to re-enter the games, and he did so because of a Christian friend who gave him a best-selling Christian book. His was just one story of many, where God featured so prominently.
Another swimmer who blew away the crowds – and the record books – was American swimmer Katie Ledecky who won 4 gold and a silver. Just before the Olympics she said this, “My Catholic faith is very important to me. It always has been and it always will be. It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.”
And what about Simone Biles who won four gold medals and a bronze at Rio? She was an unwanted child who was abandoned by her father and drug-addicted mother. But she was adopted by a Christian family in Texas, and went on to become one of the best athletes at the Olympics.
Then we have the American female hurdlers who were quite open about giving credit to God for their 1-2-3 sweep. The trio had held a prayer circle in the morning before the 100 metre race and sought God’s blessing. One of them, Brianna Rollins, posted this: “Faith, you only need a mustard seed of it. God got you!” She also said, “I want to break world records and win gold medals, but I also want to be known as the athlete who glorified God by reaching my full potential.”
Or consider South African track star Wayde van Niekerk who won a gold medal in the 400 meters race. After the win he said, “I lunged for the finishing tape and immediately afterwards got down on my knees and thanked God and then my family for their support.” He also said, “Jesus did it”.
American swimmer Maya DiRado, who won four medals (two gold, a silver and a bronze) said this just prior to the Olympics: “Knowing that I’m a child of God and that his love for me is determined by nothing I can achieve or do on my own has given me a quiet confidence. . . . I think God cares about my soul and whether I’m bringing his love and mercy into the world. Can I be a loving, supportive teammate, and can I bless others around me in the same way God has been so generous with me?”
And millions would have seen Neymar weeping for joy after he kicked the winning goal in a penalty shootout to give Brazil Olympic gold over Germany. When the team later mounted the award podium he proudly displayed a headband with the words “100% Jesus”.
Mention can also be made of American Helen Maroulis who won a gold medal in women’s wrestling. She took a strong stand for Jesus Christ, and as she walked into the arena and stepped onto the mat, she said over and over again, “Christ is in me, I’m enough”. Just hours after winning her gold medal, she also posted a photo online with Psalm 115 in the caption: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for the sake of Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness.”
Then there was the Fijian rugby sevens team which won the nation’s first gold and then broke into song, singing a hymn of thanksgiving. One line from the song of praise was this: “We have overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord.” One of the Fijians said, “First of all, I thank the Lord, he has been our source of strength… We reminded each other how God had taken us through the last two years and that the same God that we serve is here with us in Rio.”
And consider American Gwen Jorgensen who won gold in the Olympic triathlon. She said this: “I really think you just have to keep God as your focal point and know that he is always number one. When you do that, it will help you to gain perspective on everything in life—not just endurance sports.”
And we can mention Ethiopian gold medallist Almaz Ayana who broke a 23-year-old world record in the 10,000 metres track competition. She was suspected by some of her colleagues of drug cheating. To this she replied: “I am crystal clear. No. 1, I’ve been training specifically (for this event). No. 2, I pray to the Lord. The Lord has given me everything, everything. And No. 3, my doping is Jesus. Those are the reasons.”
Of course not every Christian won a medal at Rio, and sometimes God was glorified much more without a victory. Consider the amazing story of American Christian Abbey D’Agostino. Many would have seen her inspirational performance while running in a 5,000-metre qualifying round.
Tragically she got tangled up with New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin, and both women fell to the ground. She got up to continue the race, but when she saw Hamblin still on the ground in pain, she went back to help her up, and urged her to go on. They both finished the event, but D’Agostino had to be carried out in a wheelchair.
She said this about the event afterwards: “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here, he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
And there are even stories of great Christian faith involving those who did not even make it to Rio. Consider that of American 1500 metre runner Sarah Brown who discovered she was pregnant while preparing for Rio. She and her husband/coach knew that abortion was not an option, and that the baby must come first.
As she posted on Instagram: “Today wasn’t the fairytale ending you dream about. But then again, this journey never really was about an ending, it’s a beginning, A new chapter as a family of three. Thanks for all the support & you can bet you will continue to see this mama run #runmamarun”
Yet it was her faith that made the difference here. As part of her bio, we read this: “Sarah believes that her running talent is a gift from God and needs to be used for something more than her own personal gains.” So she has missed out on a chance for medals, but has a much greater gift with a healthy daughter.
But as for those who did make it to the Olympics, there were many other such stories of faith that can be told. Under the outstretched arms of the magnificent Christ the Redeemer statue, we saw numerous Catholics giving the sign of the cross. I even saw one Cuban marathon runner carrying a small banner with the words “Love Jesus” as he crossed the finish line (in 46th place or so).
One site has a collection of 32 such great faith stories from Rio. You can see it here: www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2016/august/olympic-profiles
As great as all the human achievements were, and all the gold medals, the real glory must go to God. These games have come and gone, but God lives forever, and so do we. It is vital that in our life now we give glory to God, so that we can enjoy his presence forever.
That is the only race that really matters in the end. Thank God for those athletes who have known about what true winning means, and where all the glory must go.