July/August 2000

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 self-esteem.

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.

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"...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.

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"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

The Admiral

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 NBA history.

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, Lord.'

"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."

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"I am first and foremost a Christian, and secondly an athlete -- but the two are not separate compartments of my life. -Elana Meyer

Speedy Springbok

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 Elana.

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."

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"Essentially my relationship with Jesus and with God is fundamental to everything I do." -Jonathan Edwards

Leaping Brit

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 God."

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.

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Lean on Me

Barcelona, 1992

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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