Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Running for the Glory

Sunday I watched Usain Bolt prove again that he is the "fastest man in the world" as he won the Gold medal in the 100 meter dash at the London Olympics. As a former sprinter myself, the 100 meter dash is my favorite Olympic event (with the 4x100m relay close behind). To the winner goes the lofty title above; it takes a special kind of ego to compete at that level.

My interest in the race goes back to Carl Lewis' four-medal showing in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and it wasn't too long after that I laced up my first pair of cleats with him as my inspiration. Since then records have been set, broken and set again, runners disqualified and medals stripped, unlikely heroes crowned, and of course the heartbreak of missing the medal podium by a literal hair (again, Tyson Gay came up short- just 0.01 second behind US teammate Justin Gatlin).

But the drama of this race did not begin in 1984. Of course we could obviously go back to Jesse Owens' performance in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin before the critical eyes of Adolf Hitler. But I want to go back a little further to the 1924 games in Paris.

Not long after Bolt crossed the finish line in Olympic-record time, I put in my DVD of Chariots of Fire. If you're not familiar with the movie, it recounts the efforts of Great Brittan's track and field team, specifically sprinters Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, as they prepared for and competed in the Paris Olympics. I've talked about Liddell's story before, but watching the movie while the London Olympics unfolded before me took on added significance.

One of the key plot points in the movie, and in Liddell's life, was his refusal to run in the 100m dash because the preliminary heats were held on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. While this is a true story, the movie adds and extra level of drama by portraying Liddell as surprised to learn this on the way to Paris, when in fact he knew months in advance. Also not portrayed in the movie was that he also refused to run 4x400m relay for the same reason.

Bolt won his Gold medal on Sunday. Imagine, for a moment, Bolt refusing to race because it conflicted with his religious convictions. He would have been widely criticized as fanatical and his absence would have created a worldwide scandal. Perhaps Liddell wasn't a runner of the same notoriety, but he was considered the fastest man in England. Liddell did compete in the 400m dash as a back-up event, and though he held the English record for the 440 yard dash he was not expected to seriously compete at the Olympics. Surpassing everyone's expectations, he won gold, setting a world record that would hold for 12 years. So competitively, Liddell was on par with Bolt.

We've heard the soundbites from athletes grateful for their performances thanking God and giving him credit and praise. But what if Gabby Douglas or Missy Franklin went a step further and refused to compete on a Sunday? It is nearly unthinkable. Yet some Jewish athletes choose not to compete on Saturdays and all will refuse to compete during Holy Days. Likewise Muslims will also not compete during their Holy Days. Imagine Christian basketball players sitting out every Friday during Lent (it is during March Madness after all) and when would the NFL play if most players took Sundays off?

A lot is made of the culture war in America on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, but if we look just at holiness- being separate from the world- it appears to me that we've already lost as competition and fame have won out over our convictions. (How many in your congregation miss church on Sundays during softball or soccer tournament season?)

Right before Liddell ran in the 400m finals, a note was handed to him quoting 1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honor me I will honor." As you watch the Olympics ask yourself, who are you honoring?

1 comment:

Fatha Frank said...

It is no secret I struggle with self-righteousness. So I need to add that if I were in these athlete's shoes, on the international stage, in prime time, would I make the same choice Eric Liddell did? I can't imagine I could, and that is what concerns me. What he did was scandalous and that was 90 years ago before this recent culture war that has divided this country. I just cannot imagine anyone taking the same stand today. Could you?