“Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:25, NASB).1
Athletes need to have numbers. It’s one way they are identified. That said, here are some important numbers:
Cam Newton (53), Novak Djokovic (55), Kevin Durant (56), Roger Federer (67), Lebron James (77), Lionel Messi (81), and Cristiano Ronaldo (88).
Except that these numbers are not emblazoned on their owners’ chests, backs, or shirts. They stand for millions of dollars in earnings during the year 2016, for flinging around an egg-shaped thing much larger than even an ostrich egg, and variously referred to as a pigskin or a ball; or battering about a fluorescent yellow, felt-covered orb a bit more than 2.5 inches in diameter; or alternately stooping and leaping with a hugely different ball 29.5 inches all around, and weighing between 20 and 22 ounces; or taunting another ball28 inches in circumference and weighing 14 to 16 ounces, by both kicking it ahead and running after it only to get close enough to kick it again.2
These behaviors are conducted before audiences of many thousands, who attach to them sufficient significance to pay for the privilege of observing them, and even of dressing like the performers they come to observe.
The list of names, you may have noted, is all male, because the top earning woman, a felt batterer, earned more than $20 million less that the lowest number in the lines above. This still allows her to come in at $29 million. She and the men listed above, and many others not listed, earn what they do because they win at battering, leaping, or taunting. Sports is apparently a very important thing, and winning in sports can be highly profitable.
Even without earnings, winning can be heady stuff. I asked an athlete about his experience, and he’s permitted me to share with you some of his story, and some of his name. His name is Theron, and this is a portion of his story:
My interest in athletics was a secondary matter. What came first was my realization that I could easily excel at different sport disciplines. Sometimes, at a church picnic, playing with other groups and clubs who were using the same venue, I heard a great deal, from strangers, about what I did and thought nothing of. Professional coaches who saw me play at the age of 10 or 11 were hard pressed to believe that I had never been coached in anything. Their awe at my skills led me to think of athletics as something I could pay attention to. My performances for my elementary school cricket team brought me such applause that I fell in love with the adulation itself. I loved the praise so much that I was willing to endure any negative consequences in order to continue to generate more of it.
Except my parents’ priorities. Indeed, I knew I would never attain to optimum development of my athletic gifts if I endured those priorities. They wanted me to serve God and keep the Bible Sabbath. But for me, developing my skills took first place. If it led me to compromise principles I had learned at home, it also led to success: I did excel, playing both football (soccer) and basketball internationally, and cricket, volleyball and ping pong at a very creditable national level. There were no sponsorships to turn my teammates and me into millionaire athletes like the guys in your first paragraph, but it made me famous in the land.
Raymona first started running, at the age of 8, at track and field meets sponsored by the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in New York. Consistently, Raymona was a record-breaking first, both in sprint races and in the long jump competitions.
Raymona joined track clubs that participated in local, regional, and national sports meets and continued to excel, taking gold at most of her races in the 55 meters, 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, and long jump.
At the USA Track and Field [USATF] Long Island Association Indoor Championships in 2004, Raymona set a new record, running 200 meters in 28.84 seconds. Then on July 1, 2005, at 10 years old, she broke a 33-year-old record at the USATF Youth Outdoor Track and Field National Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, by jumping 15 feet 8.25 inches to better the standing record of 14 feet 1.50 inches. Her record still stands today.
In competitions all over the United States, Raymona left behind a trail of excellence and new records in the 200-meter, 400-meter, and long jump competitions. She has been considered the greatest young athlete ever to compete for the Long Island Sachem North High School, possessing and demonstrating a competitive talent that gave her better records than some of those who represented the United States in the past two Olympic Games.
Why would they be selected before her, then? Many track coaches followed her rankings as a bar for their runners to reach and beat. Many inquired about her absence from some sports meets. With time they understood that it was a matter of her faith. Raymona became known in the track community as the runner who did not compete on Saturdays.
It was Raymona’s own painful challenge: to resist running on Saturdays. Sometimes she ran unbeaten for the entire season, until the finals. Finals would be scheduled on Saturday, and Raymona could not attend.
It was more than painful. It was confusing: why would God endow her with such talent, enable her to achieve so many victories, and yet deny her the opportunity to use her ability to the full?
At first, more than anything else, it was her respect for her mom and dad. But eventually Raymona herself decided that her faith came first; that pleasing the Lord and preparing for eternity mattered more to her than compromise for temporary gain.
Winning can be profitable, and heady, and painful, all at once, or each in its own course. But more than anything else, winning is a choice. Ed played football for the Detroit Lions until he had a career-ending injury. He wasn’t Adventist then, but he is now. He and Susan want their kids to be free to make their own choices in sports, including sports in relation to the Sabbath. Their son is going to college next year. He’s going to play football there. Ed, ex pro footballer, won’t watch sports on Sabbath, whether in a stadium or on a TV screen at home. Ed, the father, wants to be supportive of his kids—at home, on the field in little leagues, all the way through. He won’t watch sports on Sabbath, but he’s been there for his kids for whatever time their game is scheduled.
Michael and Pam are brother and sister. Their sons were rated players: Pam’s son played football; Michael’s son played basketball. Michael’s son went to college on a scholarship, and now, as Michael puts it, “he takes good care of us.” He continues, “You [“you” is his older sister] could have had somebody to take good care of you too, if you hadn’t prevented your son from making full use of his talents. God told me to let my son play on Sabbath.”
Number 451 at the Paris Olympics of 1924 may have strongly disputed Michael’s claim. Eric, the Flying Scotsman, could not conceive of his God offering such a dispensation. One of the world’s fastest sprinters, Eric would not run in heats on the day he believed was the Sabbath.
It was outrageous enough on the face of it that an athlete would keep the Sabbath rather than run. But it was all the more absurd because it was no mere high school intramural competition: it was the Olympics, where you were one of 73 handpicked competitors running for the glory of king and country, for the nation whose very name includes superlative epithet: Great Britain!
Liddell’s was a quite inconceivable posture. His religious faith came to be seen “as a sign of innate weakness,”3 slurred by Lord Cadogan, chair of the British Olympic Committee, as well as by Cadogan’s assistant, A. B. George.4 The race that was his to win was the 100 meters, but he eliminated himself by his commitment to not race on Sabbath. Instead, he took what was available, and raced in the 400 meters.
Liddell biographer Duncan Hamilton warns against the “romantic hype” of sensationalizing sports—broadcasting and writing to generate as much passion as possible. His criticism applies to more than sports writing and broadcasting. Hamilton says, “The thrill of sports can lead us into a giddy loss of perspective.”5 The parents and children, athletes and guardians, Adventists and other Christians whose stories I have narrated live, rear, compete, and focus a century after Eric Liddell. Their perspectives vary significantly: Theron’s note to me laments the disappointment “to individuals who develop [athletic] talents not to be able to benefit, like their contemporaries do, from the development of these talents.”
Michael and Ed do what they can to avoid that lament. Raymona and her parents, Sonia and Rolston, share pain while standing, like Liddell did, for what they believe is nonnegotiable spiritual principle. Whatever the range of these perspectives, Liddell’s story shows that the issue engaging all this article’s participants is hardly new.
And the issue is neither remuneration (the profit of sports), nor fame (the headiness of sports), nor masochism (the pain athletic discipline involves or the distress Raymona and Pam’s son experience because, despite how good they are and how well they do, they never get to win the big money or hold up the grand prize). The issue is more fundamental than any or all of these combined. The real question is one of definition: who is a winner and who a loser? Michael thinks Pam is the loser. But the proper answer must be that it depends . . . it depends on what one means by “loser.”
The world of sport thrives on rhetoric that emphasizes categories of winner and loser. So does the much less gaudy world of county fairs: highest prize money, the gold medal or blue ribbon goes to the highest scores or their equivalent. In Formula 1 grand prix stock car racing and track and field the equivalent of highest score is lowest time. So the number that counts for success varies from competition to competition: sometimes it’s the biggest number, and sometimes the smallest.
Among the losers—those who do not emerge as champion—there is further categorization: runners-up still collect silver medals. In places of great courtesy and sensitivity, nice tokens of affirmation may even be handed out to individuals who did not “place.” Also-rans they are called, defined by Google and Merriam-Webster, respectively, as “a loser in a race or contest, especially by a large margin”; or “an undistinguished or unsuccessful person or thing;”6 “a contestant that does not win.”7 For those who hold that missing the big money is losing, an athletic scholarship may prove to be a highly satisfying reward that brings both a good college education and a fine job thereafter. But everyone is not competing for handsome trophies, fine college education, and good jobs thereafter. Some, Paul reminds, are in it for a crown that will last for eternity. “There are trials and tribulations at every practice and game,” Ed told me. “So every game and practice is going to be difficult. And life is just like that.”
Ultimate definitions of success and failure must go beyond the experience of some challenge or difficulty. Tough times are no proof that someone is a loser. Nor does smooth sailing establish divine approval. Some live, strive, rear, and run to receive a perishable wreath. Paul, and those who stand with him stand against the baubles, stand for the imperishable (see 1 Cor. 9:25).
In the end Theron and Raymona, Ed and Susan, Michael and Pam, and all the rest of us, named and unnamed, must decide for ourselves whether the perishable or the imperishable will hold our focus; whether our ultimate satisfaction will be found in hurling, battering, leaping, and taunting balls, or in the blessedness of doing God’s commandments and savoring things delectable from the tree of life “in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7, NKJV).8
Lael Caesar has decided to focus on the incorruptible crown. He is an associate editor of