Have you ever watched the spotlight pieces during the Olympic games that talk about the athletes’ lives and backgrounds? Those spotlights are one of my favorite things about the Olympics, especially when they’re about athletes from other parts of the world. You get to learn a bit about where they come from and the sacrifices they’ve made to reach their goals. They tell the stories of dreams born in childhood, and nurtured through years of intense training and preparation, until the day they become a reality. Sometimes the story is a happy one; sometimes it’s bittersweet. Sometimes the ending is everything the athlete hoped for; sometimes it’s heartbreakingly tragic.
I remember watching the 1992 Summer Olympics as a kid. My favorite sport was gymnastics, and my favorite gymnasts were from the Romanian team and the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union, as well as some of the American girls, of course. I remember a particular bit of drama surrounding two of the Unified Team gymnasts, Tatiana Gutsu and Roza Galieva. Tatiana was the favorite to win the individual all-around gold medal, until a fall from the balance beam in the qualification round took her out of the running. The next qualifier in line was her teammate Roza, a slightly younger, slightly less experienced gymnast, who had performed beautifully during qualifications.
However, on the night of the all-around final, the Unified Team coaches replaced Roza with Tatiana, claiming that she was injured. Both girls were just 15 years old. Neither had a choice in the matter. Their coaches felt the pressure to bring home gold medals for the countries of the now-broken Soviet Union, and Tatiana was their best chance. So with one crushing decision, Roza’s dream was sacrificed while Tatiana’s received new life.
Have you ever considered what it really means to be serious about something? Ask any gymnast who competes at the Olympic level, and she (or he) will tell you of sacrifices made and dedication to hours and hours of countless repetitions of awe-inspiring skills.
In Russia, little girls start training at age five or six, sometimes younger. Around age 11, they try out for the junior national team in hopes of being one of the few out of hundreds of other girls to become the next generation of rising Russian gymnastics stars. Those who make it live at Round Lake, the team’s training base outside of Moscow, for several months out of the year. They train eight hours a day, except for a shorter training period on Saturdays, and Sundays off. During their 16th year, gymnasts try out for the senior national team. Hundreds of girls from across Russia come together to compete for a spot on the senior national team, but only a few can make the cut. These chosen ones have the opportunity to compete at the highest level on the world stage; and from them the cream of the crop, the top five (and three alternates) will participate in the game of games: the Olympics.
These girls are constantly working towards that goal. Everything sacrifice they make and everything they do is done with that goal in mind. They follow a strict diet, abstaining from certain foods and moderating their calorie intake, to maintain their “optimum weight.” Warm-ups, running, stretches, weight training and conditioning are part of their daily lives. They live with coaches, physical trainers and therapists, choreographers, and teammates most of the time, visiting family members on free weekends or holidays. These girls will sometimes even compete with pain, if the injury is a minor one.
And why do they do all this?
What is the reward for such dedication and sacrifice?
A round gold-plated medallion that says they have conquered the world.
I love the metaphor Paul uses in 1 Corinthians, likening our walk with God to athletes training for a competition. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to gymnasts and their stories. Like them, we as followers of our heavenly Father are striving for a prize. A prize of more lasting value than a medallion.
Our prize life eternal with Jesus in His country.
How dedicated must we be if we would win our prize, how focused on our goal? Well, consider what God’s Word says about an athlete’s dedication:
“All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, NLT
Like athletes, we fight daily our own human tendencies that would disqualify us from the prize. We are daily training our minds on Jesus, doing everything with Him in view. It’s a lifestyle.
This summer, thousands of athletes from around the world will take the Olympic stage. All their dreams, goals, sacrifices, training, and efforts will come down to a few short moments before the London crowd. For some, the dream will die tragically when it’s barely begun. Only one can win in each event.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.”