I loved watching the Olympics. Yes- it disturbed sleep patterns (although others have informed me that it wasn’t compulsory to wake up in the middle of the night to watch Adam Peaty’s gold) but it was fun cheering on British success. And there are certain experiences that only the Olympics give. I was away with family for the last weekend of the Games and Saturday night saw five adults shouting advice at the television, having all become taekwondo experts in the previous half hour. It is probably the only time when “Come on- kick her in the head” becomes an allowable cry.
The Olympics publicises itself as a great coming together of humanity. There are indeed people from virtually all the nations of the world. So what do we see when humanity comes together?
We see that human beings are astonishing. There were moments of wonder during the Games. The speed of Usain Bolt as he sprinted away from the field. The height of Simone Biles’ tumbles in her floor exercise. The courage and perseverance of Alistair and Jonny Brownlee triumphing in the triathlon in the midst of the Rio heat. All of these things represented hours of sacrifice and intense hard work. They were phenomenal achievements.
More than that I was struck by how impressive many of the athletes were when interviewed. There was very little self-aggrandisement. When praised for their success, the vast majority were quick to express appreciation to their coaches, friends and family (or the National Lottery!) or to acknowledge the achievements of their opponents. That didn’t surprise me. I remember thinking the same whilst watching the Sports Personality of the Year award last Christmas- virtually all of candidates were humble, appreciative of others and impressive in many ways.
What does the Christian do with that? It can seem to run counter to much of our talk about human self-centredness and sin. Actually- it affirms that human beings are wonderful creatures made in the image of God and, as such, are able to achieve great things. Image of God language is still applied to human beings in Scripture after the fall- see James 3 as an example. The fact that the athletes were appreciative of the support of family and friends should not surprise us. God has made us all relational beings and Jesus himself will talk about the ability of sinners to love family and friends.
It is a sadness to me that in most evangelical statements of faith the first thing said about humanity is that it is fallen. Whilst true it is not the full truth and a failure to incorporate image of God thinking into our worldview means that we can feel stuck when we see humanity at its best. It is one of the reasons why I always feel nervous about hearing children described as “little sinners”. I don’t deny the truth of that and I understand the point being made against the backdrop of an assumption of human innocence but it remains a half-truth and not even the first thing that Scripture would say about them. They- and we- are fearfully and wonderfully made. The Olympics are an opportunity to affirm the glory of that and the dignity of humanity.
But at the same time we assert that human beings are those who are created. I have a tradition- prior to every Olympics I watch Chariots of Fire again. So a couple of weeks ago I was reminded of the moving words of Eric Liddell recorded in the film- “God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” That is precisely the right response of the Olympic athlete- to acknowledge that any ability to run or jump or lift comes from the creator God and is an opportunity to glorify Him. Wonderfully there were odd examples of that attitude expressed during the Games. One of the astonishing moments of the fortnight was Wayde van Niekerk’s world record in the 400m. When interviewed, his response was this- “The only thing I can do now is give God praise.”
But, of course, that was a minority response. The Olympics reveals that humanity fails to praise the One who made its achievements possible. In my sermon on the opening weekend of the Olympics I pointed out that if humanity were thinking straight the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics would be full of praise and worship to God as the One who had given all the athletes the abilities they needed. Gloriously the New Creation Olympics will have those sort of ceremonies! But it not the case now. It is what the apostle Paul noted in Romans 1- humans do not glorify God or give thanks to Him. That is the essence of sin.
We need to remember that for various reasons. It would clarify our thinking if we saw sin in these terms rather than finding the need to deny the possibility of any love or kindness in human beings. It acts as a challenge to us- to what extent do we consciously and verbally give thanks to God for those things in which we excel? And it tells us that successful competitors may have gold medals but they desperately need the Gospel for they have a deep problem with sin.
We can say, therefore, that the interviews after the competitions were doubly revealing. In thanking their friends and family, the athletes were showing themselves to be made in the image of a relational God. In failing to give thanks to their Creator the ingratitude and sinfulness of humanity were revealed.
I had a conversation with a fairly new Christian recently. They said that they had been increasingly struck by how powerful and accurate was Scripture’s understanding of what it is to be human. I think that is absolutely right- glorious yet ungrateful. If you have the eyes to see it the great coming together of humanity in the Olympics once again shows the power of the Gospel to understand and provide rescue for human beings.