The Ryan Lochte controversy aside, a whole lot of incredible things happened at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio that I’m wanting to hold close.
The Salonen brood was traveling back tired and tattered from eastern Wisconsin at the conclusion, so we missed most of the finale. But we watched with great expectation the opening and much in between.
These international competitions have a way of lifting the human spirit, and like many, I enjoyed bonding with my family over the outcomes.
Many also celebrated the well-deserved reprieve from the political poppycock that had invaded just before. A little more communion and less division? Yes, please.
This year’s games stood out to me in another way, too, however; one I find worthy of mention.
Many of us won’t ever forget the record-breaking moments and surprising, inspiring upsets that had our nation holding its collective breath and exhaling together at key times. Some of us even dropped a happy tear or two throughout those weeks.
But after the torch’s final flicker, what lingered longest for me was the many, bold demonstrations of faith.
Today’s believer can quickly lose heart, as our culture increasingly shirks God’s influence and reality in our lives. So when we see, on an international stage, so many manifestations of God’s spirit thrumming in the hearts of our athletes, it can bring a real spark to our souls.
I’m thinking of just some of the articles I read — about gymnast Simone Biles’ rosary beads falling out of her gym bag; swimmer Katie Ledecky’s mention that she prays before every race; runner Usain Bolt’s nod to the heavens after grasping his third consecutive gold; Michael Phelps’ acknowledged conversion after his dangerous dance with drugs; David Boudia and Steele Johnson claiming their identities in Christ; and Simone Manuel’s spontaneous response to winning her first gold medal: “All I can say is all glory to God … I’m just so blessed.”
How many other quiet utterances to God happened without fanfare? How many athletes got on their knees before the Lord prior to their events, asking for strength and courage without notice? I’m guessing quite a few.
Are these just brainwashed humans worshiping a cartoon character from a fairytale, or do these reactions point to something real?
I can offer my own experiences, starting with my high-school track days and how I discovered then that by tapping into the reality of God’s ever-present spirit, I became calmer, more attentive, and started performing better. The refocus helped me realize the race wasn’t about me but doing my best for God.
I continue to lean on that transcendent stronghold in times I’m challenged out of my comfort zone, and faithfully, God continues to show up.
Some might say it’s all in my head. The mind is a powerful thing, after all, and how easy it would be to pin these athletes’ successes on human will alone, or a childish wish that a God who cares exists.
But what if the Holy Spirit really has been moving alongside these athletes their entire lives, and because of their openness to it, breathes an extra dose of life into them during their practices and performances, pushing them to the finish line of not only this life but into the next?
In an Aug. 11 article in Religious News Service, we read about Olympic athlete and cross-country skier Rebecca Dussault. When she joined Team USA in Torino, Italy, for the 2006 Winter Games, she stayed focused on her faith through writing the name of her favorite saint across her skis.
It wasn’t that she expected a miracle, the article notes, but that this act of faith “lent her a perspective that pushed her through the grueling 30 kilometers — about 19 miles — of her event.”
“Faith helps you cope with suffering and pain,” Dussault explained. “It pulls you into a sacrificial place, it pulls you out of sloth so you can suffer well and find meaning in places where a purely secular athlete may not probe those depths.”
In each overview of this year’s summer Olympics in Rio, a panned image of the city’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue, arms outstretched, seemed to welcomed the athletes, and indeed the whole world. To the believer, it was beautiful to behold.
Certainly, some will scoff at my theory. But I stand by it. Witnessing the palpable faith of so many athletes in Rio shining before all in their moments of triumph ignited my own soul — and I doubt I was alone.
Though we often stray from God, God stays near us through every crushing defeat, as well as in those occasions when we step onto the medal stand to await the first chord of our country’s anthem, and every moment in between.
This year’s Olympians reminded me that, above all, the human soul wants to reach for that unifying spirit, for God’s life in us makes possible more than what we can do on our own.
And God’s love is more precious than the finest gold; yes, even the gold of an Olympic medal. For when we allow him to be in charge of our lives and live for others and not just ourselves, we all become champions.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 3, 2016.]