The summer of 2008, athletes from nations around the globe inundated the city of Beijing to compete in the XXIX Olympiad.* As the opening ceremonies commenced on August 8, people everywhere watched the extraordinary skills and stamina of these marvelous participants. Each contestant had undergone hardship and severe training in order to secure the prize. It’s the story of every major sporting event, but especially the Olympics.
Paul uses the athletic contests of his time to illustrate the subject of self-denial in preparation to meet our Great Judge at the end of life’s race:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat ?my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
The Corinthian games consisted of the footrace, boxing, wrestling, and the discus; and Paul alludes to two of these (footrace and boxing) in the passage. In contrast to today’s games with their gold medal prizes and lucrative endorsements, the prize for the Hellenistic games was a wreath of pine, laurel, apple, olive, or parsley leaves. The footrace was the ultimate test of persevering through hardship.
The marathon runner represents the Christian in the race for eternal life. Contestants today prepare for the 26-mile event by strict training and by maintaining a regular routine, which includes running 90 to 120 miles per week (15 to 20 miles per day), maintaining a strict diet, and cultivating a vision of the goal. On those days they don’t feel like practicing, runners still must push and pace themselves to build up a reserve for the finish.
Determined to Finish
It was 7:00 p.m., October 20, 1968, in Mexico City, and the coliseum was emptying after witnessing a fresh-looking Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia finish the race an hour earlier. His teammate, the legendary Abebe Bikila, winner of the previous two Olympic marathons, had to drop out after 10 miles because of shin splints and a broken bone in his foot. Only a few thousand spectators were left when the stadium was aroused by sirens and whistles signaling the arrival of another marathoner. The spectators were confused.
As they looked at the gate a lone figure entered, wearing the Tanzania colors. His name was John Stephen Akhwari, his leg bandaged and bloodied. With each step he grimaced as he hobbled around the 400-meter track. A few spectators began to clap; then a thunderous applause erupted. Akhwari painfully crossed the finish line and walked off the field without turning to the cheering crowd.
When he was asked why he did not quit, since he was in pain and had no chance of getting a medal, he responded: “My country did not send me to start a race. They sent me to finish it.”
When we accept Christ as our Savior, we enter the eternal race. We need not fear losing, for He has won the race for us. We need only to finish with Him!
Helping Each Other
In this struggle we need to help one another.
On August 4, 1936, during the Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens had already won the 100-meter race and had just finished the semifinal 200-meter heat. Concurrently, the qualifying trials for the broad jump were in progress. As Owens walked past the starting board to measure off his pace, the judge raised a flag and shouted “Foul!” This upset him; and as he ran down the approach, he ruined his jump—which left him only one remaining attempt to qualify for the event.
It was at this point that Lutz Long, Owens’ German competitor and rival, approached him. He informed Owens he’d place his towel before the board to use as a marker to jump from, something that would make it easier for Owens to qualify. Owens followed Long’s advice and went on to qualify. Long performed a world-record jump; but Owens went on to break that short-lived record and win the gold medal.
During Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome in A.D. 60, he introduced a friend in his letter to Philemon. Verse 24 acquaints us with Demas, a fellow worker, who very likely was a convert from Paul’s ministry. As a new Christian, Demas probably had an idealistic first love experience, hungering for the Word and cherishing his relationship with Paul, and comforting Paul during his imprisonment.
And that’s how it should be. Said Paul: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
The Olympic Spirit
Another potential Olympic participant, Bill Havens, had a challenging experience. He was almost assured of a gold medal in the single canoeing event in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. But his wife was pregnant with their first child, and her delivery would probably occur during the games. Bill had a difficult decision to make. Should he stay home and be at his wife’s side during the delivery, or go to the games?
His wife encouraged him to go, since he’d trained so hard for his life-long dream; but Bill decided it was more important to be with her than compete in the games. As it turned out, their first child was born four days after the Olympics ended. For years afterward, Bill wondered if he had made the right decision.
But in the summer of 1952 Havens received a telegram from Helsinki that put his questioning to rest. “Dear Dad—Thanks for waiting around for me to be born in 1924. I’m coming home with the gold medal you should have won; [signed] your loving son.” Frank Havens had won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter single canoeing event.
As we walk in faith with Jesus, we can be assured that His promises are sure, and that our hope will come to fruition.
Why Some Abandon the Race
There are a number of reasons Christians abandon their faith, but here are just two:
1. False Expectations. When we become Christians we often expect our lives to be problem free. We think all Christians will be “angelic,” and that all our weaknesses will be easily overcome.
Mark Lenzi expected things to be different when he won the diving gold during the 1992 Barcelonan games and received momentary glory. He appeared on the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows, and there were many potential endorsements. But as quickly as the whirlwind of recognition and offers came, they disappeared. Failing to receive the rewards he expected, he lost his motivation and fell into despair.
Might Demas have had a similar experience? In our second encounter with him (in Paul’s letter to the Colossians), he’s sending out greetings with other Christian workers (Col. 4:14). But later, things would take a drastic turn. Says Paul, in his second letter to Timothy: “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). Perhaps Demas had forgotten his “first love” experience. His high energy and interest may have lessened. Or perhaps in the midst of suffering for the faith, doubts and wavering thoughts might have entered his mind.
Lenzi, after two years of wallowing in self-pity, recognized the need for help. Asking his coach to prepare him for the ’96 Olympics, he trained rigorously, refocused, and went on to win the bronze, despite an injured shoulder. Would that all of us might recover the same way from the Demas experience!
2. Distraction. We can become distracted when we lose our daily connection with Christ.
Felix Carvajal was a Cuban mail carrier and hitchhiked his way to St. Louis to participate in the 1904 games. He came with no equipment to run the marathon, which he had never run before. However, in the spirit of the games, Americans found some running gear for him. During the course of the race Felix waved to everyone, sometimes stopping to chat with people. Along the way he even stopped to eat. Felix was well liked and became known as the “clown prince of the games.”
In spite of all the distractions, he came in fourth. Imagine the outcome if he had been focused! We cannot afford to lose our focus on Jesus.
Need for Perseverance
The heart of the Olympic philosophy is not simply winning, but about faithfully representing one’s country, putting forth one’s best effort—and finishing.
At the Munich games of 1972 Lasse Viren, nicknamed the “Flying Finn,” was the man to beat in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. But halfway through the first race, the 10,000 run, he was tripped up and fell. As he lay on the track he had to decide whether to stay there in frustration and disappointment or get up and finish the race. He chose the latter and, amazingly, not only finished the race, but won!
Two thousand years ago another Person had a decision to make. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ lay prostrate on the ground in prayer, petitioning for strength to finish the race He had started for the eternal salvation of humanity. The torture, pain, disgrace, and darkness of the cross was not a path that His humanity could bear, and His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). But knowing what was at stake for the human race, He surrendered to the will of His heavenly Father, saying, “. . . not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
By finishing the race He’d begun, Christ made it possible for all of us sinners to receive eternal life. May each one of us persevere in our personal race, crossing the finish line with Christ, and receiving from Him the most important medal imaginable: eternal life.
*When he wrote this article, the author relied on a series of online sources for factual (nonbiblical) information. Though the ones we were able to check proved accurate, several of the sites he listed no longer exist. Many of the stories are well known, but readers who wish may double-check by keying in the names of particular events or individuals on an Internet search engine.—Editors.
Wayne Wasiczko has served the Adventist Church as a teacher and administrator for some 30 years. He is an auditor for the Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Spokane, Washington. This article was published September 9, 2010.