Only days after the conclusion of the Tour de France, viewers across the world were treated Friday night to the ceremonial start of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. To most of us, it signaled the beginning of a two-week opportunity to see the finest athletes in action, representing their native countries and competing in a variety of sports.
The common thread to all of these athletic events is the striving for excellence and the years of practice and sacrifice required by the participants to achieve their goals. For the athletes themselves, success is based on strength, agility, endurance, accuracy, and flexibility, with a regimen of strict diet and specific physical training.
But I would suggest that for most Olympic athletes (and indeed, for many of us non-Olympians), there’s a mental factor – some might even call it a spiritual factor – that’s just as important, if not the most important ingredient for success, in whatever we do.
I know a professional training and fitness coach who watched every stage of the recent Tour de France (won for the first time by a British cyclist named Bradley Wiggins) and was struck by the courage and strength and raw talent of the riders and their teams, but also by the dignity and honor expressed by the riders in that event. He expects the London Olympics to produce more of the same.
He says that for athletes at the highest level of achievement, there’s a mental focus on exceeding limitations of the body, on expressing man’s higher nature, his or her spontaneity and perfection. Some use a process called “visualization.” Others say it’s all about mentally “letting go” of limitations or “expecting” better results.
One of our daughters – married and with two teenage children – took up the triathlon five years ago as a way of staying fit and giving her a personal challenge beyond her family responsibilities. She recognizes a divine source for health and happiness, and she often uses Bible passages for inspiration and encouragement.
She finds gratitude (for her fellow competitors, for the support staff, and for just being able to be there in the race) to be a reliable healing agent for stress, doubt, and fear. And, she always prays before, during, and after her races – to listen for God’s guidance and protection, to feel His strength and confidence.
She’s not at the Olympic level yet, but at each of the 10-12 races she enters every year, her times get better and her aches and pains (and, yes, injuries or mechanical breakdowns) get fewer.
Another interesting connection to these Olympics and the impact of mental or spiritual factors was the 1924 Olympics held in Paris and depicted by the fact-based 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. One of the lead characters – Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), a devout Christian, the son of a Scottish missionary in China, and a talented member of the British team – withdraws from the 100-meter race (his specialty) upon learning that the race is scheduled for a Sunday, in spite of pressure from peers, politicians, and even the royal family.
In response to the question “Why do you run?” Liddell was quoted as saying “For the glory of God” (in much the same way as Bach was reported to have answered the question why he composed music).
The movie struck a chord with the American public, as it won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
There won’t be any Academy Awards at this year’s Olympics, but plenty of gold, silver, and bronze awards for excellence, along with limitations overcome, new records established, and a flame of faith, dignity, honor, and gratitude.