Thinking Anew – Joy, heartbreak and doing one’s best

Kellie Anne Harrington. It is hard to imagine what it takes to make it to the Olympics. The physical, mental, and emotional demands must be enormous, so well done to all the Irish participants. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

Kellie Anne Harrington. It is hard to imagine what it takes to make it to the Olympics. The physical, mental, and emotional demands must be enormous, so well done to all the Irish participants. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

 

As the Olympic Games come to an end it is worth recalling that they were first held over 2,700 years ago as a religious festival to honour Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and athletes who won were regarded as having been touched by the gods.

They were an important feature of Greek culture, with sports facilities in large towns. Tarsus, for example, the birthplace of St Paul, had a large Greek population devoted to sports, so the fact that he mentioned sport in his writings is not surprising.

He used words and phrases not only from sport but also the business and legal world to connect his message with everyday life. In his own spiritual journey, he speaks of pressing on “towards the goal”, using the Greek word for the pillar at the end of each stadium which athletes aimed for.

He refers to the fact that successful athletes were rewarded by a wreath made of wild olive and laurel, and writing to the Corinthians he contrasts this “perishable wreath” with the imperishable reward of the Christian life.

It is hard to imagine what it takes to make it to the Olympics.

The physical, mental, and emotional demands must be enormous, so well done to all the Irish participants.

But while getting there is an enormous achievement there remains that final test, winning or losing – joy for some and heartbreak for others.

St Paul understood that when writing to the Corinthians: “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 ... They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

Swiss -born Dr Paul Tournier, known as the 20th-century’s greatest Christian physician, had a worldwide reputation as a pastoral counsellor. In his book Escape from Loneliness, which is about Christian discipleship, he tells the story of a little child whose mother was teaching him how to pray. “When he got to the part, ‘Lord I surrender everything to you, everything I own,’ he suddenly broke off and whispered to himself, ‘except my baby rabbit.’ All of us have our baby rabbits. Sometimes it is an ugly thing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes large, sometimes small; but we are more attached to it than to anything else.”

Tournier knew how difficult it would be for most people to let go certain things in their lives.

A man faced with that choice was Eric Henry Liddell, the Scottish athlete who took part in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Liddell was born in China where his parents were missionaries but educated in the UK, where he pursued his sporting interests in athletics and rugby.

He famously hit the headlines when he surrendered something more substantial than a baby rabbit by refusing to run in the heats for his favoured 100 metres because they were held on a Sunday.

He competed instead in the 400 metres which was held on a weekday and won.

He said: “The secret of my success over the 400 metres is that I run the first 200 metres as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 metres, with God’s help I run faster.”

The story of his Olympic career and his religious life is told in the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire.

In 1925, just one year after his Olympic success, Liddell turned his back on fame and fortune and returned to China to work as a missionary teacher.

Following Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, he was detained in an internment camp and died in 1945 aged 43. This extraordinary man of faith who, in Kipling’s words, “met with triumph and disaster” left us this rule of life which is all that God asks of us: “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done one’s best.”

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