The Olympic Games in Tokyo have been fascinating to watch. But there’s this eerie feeling of watching the games in near-empty arenas and stadia. You can readily tell that something doesn’t look right. Every time I turn on the TV to watch, I begin to wonder how the athletes, who have trained so hard over the past several years and even in the midst of the pandemic to represent their countries, feel about competing in near-empty spaces.
As many of you have, I've been to ballparks, arenas, and stadia to watch different sporting events over the years, and I know that win or lose, the athletes no doubt feed on the energy of spectators. Watching the games with little-to-no spectators reminds me of the period during the earlier days of COVID when we could not worship in person together. Leading worship at Christ Church every Sunday morning at that time was the loneliest and painful experience one could have. Looking at the empty chairs, many with pictures of parishioners plastered on them, was both humbling and terrifying. I always wondered to myself, "When is this going to end?"
One thing I have learned is that these experiences, I believe, help us to look at life - not through the major victories that a gold, silver, or bronze medal may attest to us and others, but through the courage of graceful living.
The Olympic Games have been exciting, and like everything else in life, there have been moments of disappointment, heartbreak, sadness, surprise, happiness, and pure joy. To see the athletes express any of these emotions in response to a contest is so human. For example, I was watching the 800-meter competition the other night, and in the course of the race, Nigel Amos from Botswana tripped Isaiah Jewett from the United States. Both of them fell, but as disappointed as they were, and as upset as I think Isaiah may have been that he was tripped, both acted with grace and helped each other to the finish line.
Yet another story, two high jumpers - Mutaz-Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy - competed against one another. Each athlete could simply not outdo the other as they kept jumping and jumping at higher heights. After both had missed at the same high point, an Olympic official approached them to say that the next phase of their competition would be a “jump-off” to see who could outlast the other. Then came the question from the Qatari:
“Can we have two golds?” asked Barshim.
The official responded, “It’s possible, yes.”
Immediately, the two athletes looked at one another and smiled. The high jump contest between Barshim and Tamberi was over, with each of them winning a gold medal.
The Olympic Games are, in essence, about the celebration of humanity. In an insightful way, I think the many varied Olympic events tell a unique story about you and I and everyone else - that the Olympic Games are not about one thing, sport, or event, but rather different and multiple ones. And each of them brings out different gifts, talents, and fulfillment to each one of us. In just the same way, God’s creation is not, and has never been, about one thing or one event, but rather different and multiple ones. Again, God’s creation has never been about one person or race, but all people. God’s creation has been about God’s creation, all of God’s creation, and not merely some of God’s creation. I think that is how we find deeper spirituality, with the acknowledgment that God has not been about one thing, and that any and all things do express the depth, height, length, and breadth of God. So then, if we are to put our competitive natures aside, we will find strength in each other, we will find grace in each other, we will find solace in each other, and we will push each other to win.
In many ways, it is a question of choice - you have to decide, you have to make the choice as to whether you will go against the grain and find in each person or in each of God’s creation, something exciting, something worth fighting for, something worth celebrating. Can you be the athlete who helps the other athlete to the finish line? Can you be the athlete who asks the official if we can have two golds?
Here’s another story for you: a Kenyan runner Abel Mutai was only a few meters from the finish line, but got confused with the signs and stopped, thinking he had finished the race. A Spanish man, Ivan Fernandez, was right behind him and, realizing what was going on started shouting to the Kenyan to keep running. Mutai did not know Spanish and did not understand. So Fernandez pushed Mutai to victory. A reporter asked Ivan, “Why did you do this?”
My dream is that one day we can have some sort of community life where we push ourselves and help each other win.” He responded. The reporter insisted “But why did you let the Kenyan win?” Ivan replied, “I didn’t let him win, he was going to win. The race was his.” Not satisfied, the reporter asked again, “But you could have won!” Ivan looked at him and replied: “But what would be the merit of my victory? What would be the honor of this medal? What would my mother think of me?”
We have been made to believe that every aspect of our lives should be about winning or losing - and, in fact, winning at whatever cost. But life is much more than that - it is about beauty, grace, compassion, peace, and love. For that reason, we always have to set aside our competitive side in order to be gracious - even when we think we are winning.
To answer the question of choice, my prayer is for you to always choose graceful living, for that is the only way that each of us can win.