Going for the Gold
Seeking the Real Prize
by Rusty Wright
Sprinters crouch coiled in their blocks, muscles
straining as they await the starter's gun. At the crack of the pistol, a multicolored,
multinational blur bursts forth. In a few seconds, raised arms signal victory. A new
Olympic champion is crowned.
Viewers' hearts beat faster as the soccer star dribbles and weaves through opponents
toward the goal. Finally she breaks into the clear and boots the ball into the corner of
the net, past the outreached arms of the diving goalkeeper. "Goaaaal!" shouts
the excited sportscaster. Millions cheer in living rooms, lounges and airports as their
nation's team brings home the gold.
Swimmers churn, gymnasts vault, weightlifters strainfaster, higher, stronger in hopes
of glory. In September, more than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 nations will compete
in Sydney, Australia, for Olympic medals in more than 40 sports from archery to wrestling.
Television viewers in the U.S. and Canada can feast on 435 hours of Olympic programming --
virtually around-the-clock coverage. The modern Olympics began in Athens, Greece, in 1896,
and now captures the hearts of millions. Fans thrill to courageous performances and
dramatic victories. They cry with the heartbreak of loss and wince at demonstrations of
playing through pain.
Recent financial and ethical scandals have tainted the Olympic movement as tales
emerged of International Olympic Committee members cashing in on their site-selection
power to gain money and privilege from aspiring host cities. IOC officials have promised
to clean up their act. Meanwhile, athletes from around the globe have invested countless
hours in exhausting training, pushing themselves to excel in Sydney as they seek personal
and national success.
What drives the competitors? For some, it's the chance to represent their country on
one of sports' grandest stages. Others seek the thrill of international contact. Some see
dollar signs and lucrative endorsement contracts ahead. Undoubtedly many enjoy the rush
that comes from trying one's best and accomplishing a goal.
And the fans, what do they get from the games? Excitement over global contest keeps
some glued to the tube. Hearing one's national anthem as their flag is raised and their
athlete graces the victory stand is sweet reward. Some seek bragging rights and
The human touch of "up close and personal" stories from the athletes' lives
hits many viewers where they live. Television depicts athletes struggling to follow their
dream, overcoming injury, illness and personal doubt, perhaps aided by loyal parents,
spouses or coaches. Viewers connect emotionally with the stars and follow their journeys,
some living vicariously through their heroes' exploits.
Many top Olympians have discovered that winning is not the only or even the best
motivator for life. While they strive for excellence, they have found something that
matters more than applause, world records or a medal. Consider a few of their stories.
"...for the first time in my life, I found I needed a strength I
couldn't muster. In utter despair, I gave my life back to Christ." -Michelle Akers
Soccer's Wild Woman
As a child, Michelle Akers dreamed of playing football for the Pittsburgh Steelers and
catching the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. When she learned that "girls don't
play football," she took up a sport that most of the world calls "football"
but which Americans call "soccer." Michelle reached the Super Bowl of soccer
last year when she and her teammates captured the World Cup in a dramatic overtime
shootout against China. Along the way she gave her best to the sport and helped the U.S.
women's soccer team earn Sports Illustrated's 1999 "Sportswomen of the Year"
award. With Olympic gold medals from Atlanta in 1996, prospects look good for Sydney.
Michelle's list of accomplishments includes U.S. Olympic Committee athlete of the year.
Hank Steinbrecher, U.S. Soccer Secretary General, said: "Michelle has transformed
women's soccer. She has elevated the women's game from a part-time recreational sport to a
full-fledged professional sport. Known as the 'female Pele' [referring to the Brazilian
soccer legend], Michelle has a worldwide reputation for excellence."
Life has not been all golden for this fierce competitor. Her parents' divorce tore her
up during her youth. In high school, she sought comfort in "partying, boys, skipping
school, stealing." "My personal turmoil increased," she admits. "I was
a mess inside." Illness and sports injuries have dogged her during her adult life. In
1994, she endured the agony of her own divorce.
Through it all Michelle has returned to some spiritual principles she had first
understood from a concerned high-school English teacher and coach, Mr.
Kovats, who had
spoken to her of a relationship with God. "Desperate, alone and afraid,"
Michelle had prayed back then to welcome Jesus into her life. She soon sensed a peace and
began to learn more about knowing God and the difference he could make in her life. Yet
other interests turned her heart from spiritual things. In 1991, she was named "best
player in the world." Then, she hit rock bottom. As Michelle tells the story today:
"In 1993, after struggling for two years with unexplained fatigue and injury, I
suddenly collapsed during play at the Olympic Sports Festival. After being diagnosed with
Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS), a year later I found myself
physically, emotionally and spiritually at the end of my rope. I had accepted Jesus Christ
as my savior in high school, but the next ten years were lived on my terms. Now, for the
first time in my life, I found I needed a strength I couldn't muster. In utter despair, I
gave my life back to Christ."
"My health struggles continued, but Christ's inexplicable hope and peace were
always there for me. God never abandoned me, and then in 1996, he helped me achieve the
impossible -- an Olympic Gold Medal. In my career, I felt isolated in my struggles and
pain, yet now I know God was slowly preparing me for that Olympic moment. Jesus had to
take it all away, so he could give me back so much more."
Today Michelle inspires audiences with her story of coping with life's adversities with
God as her friend. She is obviously excited about her Olympic gold medal. Yet she seems
convinced that with God, she has found something worth much more than gold.
"A lot of times we think, 'I'm a pretty good person.' You're not a '
pretty good person. There's only one 'pretty good person' and that was Jesus Christ. God
says Jesus Christ is the only way." -David Robinson
David Robinson played basketball for the U.S. in three Olympics -- 1988, 1992 and 1996.
In his last year at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was unanimous national Player of the Year.
As a star of the San Antonio Spurs, he led his team to the NBA championship in 1999.
Selected by the Spurs as the first 1987 NBA draft pick, "the Admiral," as he
is called, served two years of military service before becoming NBA Rookie of the Year and
helping the Spurs reverse their fortunes. Their 1988-89 record (pre-Robinson) was 21-61.
In Robinson's rookie season the Spurs went 56-26, the greatest single-season turnaround in
This tall (7'1") muscular player has the size to intimidate and the spirit to
inspire. He is considered one of the best centers ever and was chosen as one of the 50
greatest NBA players in history.
What passion drives his life? In 1992, he and his wife Valerie formed the David
Robinson Foundation, "a Christian organization whose mission is to support programs
which address the physical and spiritual needs of the family."
Robinson feels a "responsibility to God to perform at a certain level as a
husband, to perform at a certain level as a father. Those are things that take an
investment of time." He did not always acknowledge God or God's part in his life:
"My second year in the league [NBA], I had everything. At least I thought I had
everything. You know, you're making millions of dollars a year, you have houses, cars, you
have everything you think you want. Then all of a sudden I realized that God had given me
everything. He had given me all this, but never once had I stopped and said, 'Thank you,
"That day, I just cried. I said, 'Lord, I am so sorry, I am so, so sorry.' I
didn't realize that I was being like a spoiled brat. I said, 'Thank you for everything
you've given me. You've blessed me beyond comprehension. Everything I have, I want to give
right back to you. From this day forth, I want to learn about you, I want to walk with
you, I want to hold your hand, I want to love you like I say I love you.'
"He turned my life around 180 degrees. He gave me a joy and an ability to enjoy
what I had that I didn't have before."
Basketball players sometimes refer to the basketball as "the rock." Robinson
feels the term also applies to a special person in his life: "That's exactly what
Jesus is, the Rock. Jesus said it himself. He said, 'I am the way, I am the truth, and I
am the life.' Apart from him, there's no other way. That's the one thing I didn't
understand. A lot of times we think, 'I'm a pretty good person.' You're not a 'pretty good
person.' There's only one 'pretty good person,' and that was Jesus Christ. God said Jesus
Christ is the only way.
"He is the only foundation, the only one that is secure, that is real. Jesus
claimed to forgive sins and died for that sole purpose. That's my Rock."
am first and foremost a Christian, and secondly an athlete -- but the two are not separate
compartments of my life. -Elana Meyer
I remember watching the 1992 Barcelona Olympics on television with some South African
friends at a conference outside Johannesburg. We had many discussions about sports. They
educated me on the finer points of rugby, and I enlightened them on the beauty of American
basketball. During the Olympic track and field events, all activity stopped as we focused
on Elana Meyer, a South African distance runner.
Barcelona was the first Olympic Games in which South Africa had competed for many
years, and her compatriots were transfixed. A stellar runner, Elana has held African
records in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meter distances. That evening she won a silver
medal, and the joy and admiration on the faces of her fans showed how deeply she had
touched their hearts.
I learned recently of Elana's spiritual commitment. Elana attended Stellenbosch
University, one of her nation's finest, and began to train with some male athletes who
spoke openly of their relationships with God. They made quite an impression on
In her words: "Up until that time, my idea of being a Christian had been more in
the line of reading my Bible in the evening or hearing about the Lord in church or in a
Bible study group. During an ordinary day I would never really speak to anybody about him.
"These guys were different. I could see it in their lives. This was a turning
point in my life. I began to have an assurance of salvation, that once one has received
him, one is his child. It doesn't matter how one feels or whether things go well or not,
one stays a child of the King."
Elana feels that her faith encompasses every area of her life. "I am first and
foremost a Christian," she explains, "and secondly an athlete -- but the two are
not separate compartments of my life. Prior to every race, I ask the Lord to use me as
would seem best to him.
"Although being a Christian isn't always smooth sailing, it is great to be a child
of God because God is love, his will is love, and his laws are laws of love. Athletics is
just a gift, and without the Lord I would not have accomplished anything on my own."
"Essentially my relationship with Jesus and with God is fundamental
to everything I do." -Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards leapt onto the international front pages in 1995 when he broke the
world record for the triple jump. This British athlete first competed in the Olympics in
1988 at Seoul and won the silver medal at Atlanta in 1996.
His faith has been a significant part of his life for as long as he can remember.
"Essentially my relationship with Jesus and with God is fundamental to everything I
do," Jonathan affirms.
He readily explains his own beliefs: "Man is sinful and separated from God and can
do nothing about that.
"God of his own will sent his Son to die on the cross for our sins and rose again.
By virtue of having faith in him we can be reconciled to God, as a gift, not something
that we can earn but as a gift. Out of that gift we give our lives in service to
Jonathan relates how his faith weathered a huge disappointment in the 1992 Olympic
games. He began thinking he could earn a medal, but "then it all went very horribly
wrong in the qualifying. I didn't even make 16 meters, and I had been jumping 17 meters
reasonably consistently throughout the season. It was probably the worst period of my
life, athletically. I was absolutely devastated. All my hopes and dreams had been blown
out of the water.
"I remember going to bed in the evening thinking, 'I'll wake up in the morning,
and it will all be a dream. This isn't reality. It can't have happened.'
"This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. It was awful. There is no other
way of describing it. I was taken to depths that I had not known previously.
"I look back to that nowthat has been very fundamental in the growth of my faith
and my maturing as a Christian. I think at that stage it was the first real, real, real
crisis I had faced as a Christian, independent from living at home.
At that time I thought, 'Do I really believe this? Am I really going to go for it 100
percent, come what may, win or lose? Is God first? Am I going to glorify him and give my
best to him, regardless of results?' From that point of view, it was crucial and laid a
foundation for the ensuing years in athletics and particularly spiritually."
Running Your Race
These and many other Olympic athletes say their faith in God is the most significant
part of their lives. One first century believer compared the life of faith to a race. He
wrote, "Run in such a way as to get the prize" and spoke of "a crown that
will last forever."
As Christians we know that the joys of knowing Christ are both temporal and eternal.
And we also know that we all have our race to run.
Rusty Wright is an author and traveling lecturer with the International School of
Theology in Southern California. He has spoken on six continents.
Lean on Me
Derek Redmond started quickly in lane five, passing up the runners in the staggered
lanes six through eight. Then Redmond felt something pop. He had torn the hamstring in his
right leg. Helpless and alone, Derek watched all the other runners finish the race.
Suddenly, an older man jumped out of the grandstands and ran out on the track. It was
Derek's father, running to the side of his injured son. Redmond's father provided a
shoulder as his son hobbled in agony toward the finish line.
Everyone who witnessed this event would agree that the Redmonds produced one of the
most glorious finishes in Olympic history. Christians who enjoy a personal relationship
with God know that our heavenly Father is committed to help us finish the race of life.
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