We can learn something from the perseverance of an Olympic athlete.
In 1968 during the marathon event of the Olympics, a now-famous John Stephen Akhwari suffered a devastating accident. After dealing with some cramping, he was knocked down while jockeying for position, badly injuring his knee and shoulder. Later, after finally completing the course, he was asked why, even though he had lost the race by several hours, he had continued running. His answer was simple: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”1
What’s It All About Anyway?
Every four years nations around the world send their best athletes to compete in the largest sporting event on the globe. It may not have the national viewing audience of the Super Bowl, or the hyper gloss and slick marketing of the NBA, but this event speaks more to the population of the world, the everyman, if you will.
These athletes, who will return home to jobs and school, compete for one of three medal types: gold, silver, or bronze. The opportunity to stand on the pedestal and receive a medal for your country is a national honor. In these feats of athletic prowess (and mental fortitude), the audience is treated to what the very best of every country has to offer. It is the ultimate view of what the body can accomplish when tied to a will to keep going when everything in your body wants to quit. The dedication necessary to get up early morning before school during the winter months is embodied in the families that sacrifice for their Olympian to get specialized training in their respective sport.
Athletes, Attendees, Audience
I have never been an Olympics watcher. I pay attention only to the basketball competitions and, sometimes, track and field. This year’s Olympics hold special distinctions. First, it was displaced because of the COVID-19 pandemic; and second, there are no fans in the stands. Without the audience there to cheer on athletes, there is a missing piece to the athletic competition.
The crowds that are usually in attendance represent people who’ve saved up to visit a new country. Many in the crowd represent families that come to support their Olympian. Some families have made the Olympics their family vacation. One such former Olympics attender is Maria Taylor, who attended 25 years ago with her family in Atlanta. She had no relatives competing, yet her mother thought it important to get tickets to as many events as possible for their family to gain an appreciation for the event. Fast-forward to now, and Maria Taylor is no longer a spectator but a commentator for NBC sports. She credits the event and the amazing athletes she observed as fueling her love of sports.
The audience in the stands can be an integral part of the journey at the Olympic games. There is even a term for their role: “the crowd effect.” In psychology, it is a subset known as crowd psychology: “Ordinary people typically can gain direct power by acting collectively.”2
The energy of the crowd, these disparate people acting together, can lift competitors’ spirits. The encouragement of the crowd and these families that have sacrificed inspire the athletes to find a second wind in competition. The excitement of the crowd, people who just love sports, can help any competitor to remember why they spent as much time as they did to rise to the station of representing their country. After all, they did not come all this way, sacrifice all this time, to just start. They came to finish.
The Christian journey is an Olympics of sorts. There is a sacrifice made to follow the Jewish Carpenter from the wrong side of town. Many must make the decision to represent the kingdom in our everyday endeavors. Yet we do not do the things we do to gain earthly temporal medals. We do them to gain an uncorruptible eternal one (see 1 Cor. 9:25).
We have a crowd that pushes us as well, a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1), whose eternal energy is not dampened when we are knocked down, injured, or hurt. Their energy pushes us to keep going and to not give up.
John Stephen Akhwari, and many other Olympic competitors throughout the years, have gained strength from hearing the cheers of the crowds. They have kept the winning attitude because finishing—with sports as with salvation—is the principal matter. No one vacillating between advancing and looking back is fit to win the prize (Luke 9:62).