hirty-three-year-old Simon Whitfield is a self-proclaimed video-game addict, but this Canadian’s interest in gaming goes well beyond competing against opponents in virtual worlds. He’s also an Olympic gold medalist—on terra firma—with a somewhat off-center sense of humor.
He recalls, for instance, his first competition in a triathlon, at the age of 11, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts with cows on them. And invited as a notable resident of Victoria to dine with Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to that city in 2002, he remembers that he sat only two seats away from Her Majesty and could think only to ask her what she thought of how he had tied his tie.
But in competition of any kind, Whitfield is all business. In the first staging of the triathlon (swimming-cycling-running) at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, he was in 28th place after the swim and 27th after the bike. But he finished the run at a blistering pace that made up the time and earned him the gold medal.
And now he is at the Olympics in Beijing, along with more than 10,000 other athletes representing 204 nations, with a single purpose: to win.
The modern Olympics, first staged in 1896, have become arguably the most significant sporting event anywhere today. Thanks to the universality of television—and now the Internet—virtually every sentient being on the planet can participate vicariously in the stirring quadrennial spectacle.
The drama of sheer competition among the world’s premier athletes and the human interest stories behind them—combined with a too-often overdeveloped sense of national or ideological pride1—draws millions of viewers to their TV and computer screens during the most popular events. Advertisers are agog with the potential for this appeal to consumers. NBC will provide an exhausting marathon of its own: 3,600 hours of coverage from the Beijing games through its broadcast network, cable channels, and online offerings. No one with Internet access will be able to complain about the unavailability of some of the lesser-known events, such as the trampoline, table tennis, beach volleyball, or BMX competition (for its first time in the Olympics).
Of course, these kinds of sports are considerably removed from those of the ancient Greeks, from whom we’ve inherited the Olympic spirit. For at least eight centuries before the time of Christ, the Greeks staged the Olympics every four years. They included variations on what today we consider martial arts, track, and field events. Winners of these competitions were honored in much the same way as returning military heroes. And the Roman Empire continued the tradition until the fourth century A.D. By that time Christianity had been adopted as the state religion, and the emperor discontinued the games because of what was considered to be their pagan influences.
The apostle Paul, however, keen observer of his surrounding culture that he was, drew on the popularity of athletic competition to illustrate timeless spiritual principles.
In his first letter to the Christian church in the city of Corinth, he wrote, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24, NKJV).
Paul wasn’t describing here the idea that salvation is nothing more than a process of competition. He was not emphasizing what American baseball’s Leo Durocher famously said: “Nice guys finish last.” Jesus had turned that philosophy on its head when He startled His disciples by announcing: “ ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first’ ” (Matt. 19:30, NKJV).
This “first-will-be-last” idea is an alien concept in today’s world of sport, which has taken on all the trappings of religion. Much has been made of the way in which people worship sports. In our current culture, winning is everything. Anything less is oblivion.
Upon earning a silver medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Chinese ice skater Ye Qiaobo wept bitterly because she had fallen short of the gold medal and thought she would be unable to compete in 1996: “I spend so many times for skating,” she told reporters in broken English, “and I gave up so many hobbies for this. The Olympics are four years in time. And I am old.”
When Paul used metaphors from the world of sport, he was not stressing so much the importance of besting opponents, but of commitment and perseverance: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1, NKJV).
“The competitors in the ancient games,” writes Ellen White, “after they had submitted to self-denial and rigid discipline, were not even then sure of the victory. . . . However eagerly and earnestly the runners might strive, the prize could be awarded to but one. One hand only could grasp the coveted garland. Some might put forth the utmost effort to obtain the prize, but as they reached forth the hand to secure it, another, an instant before them, might grasp the coveted treasure.
“Such is not the case in the Christian warfare. Not one who complies with the conditions will be disappointed at the end of the race. Not one who is earnest and persevering will fail of success.”2
An interviewer once asked theologian Henry Blackaby what Hebrews 12:1 means when it counsels us to “run with endurance.”
“The only thing I know,” Blackaby responded, “is a deep love relationship with the Lord. The key is in that same passage in Hebrews: looking away from everything else; looking to Jesus [verse 2]. The greatest single motivation for a Christian to run the race is the Lord Jesus.”3
But beyond running the race, finishing it is of ultimate importance. Toward the end of his life, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7, NKJV). In the Christian worldview, finishing is the same thing as winning.
Whether Simon Whitfield knew it or not, he was living out this philosophy when he finished the triathlon event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Though he was in 27th place at the end of the second stage, he didn’t give up. He finished the race. And this endurance—this perseverance—made him every bit as much a winner as the fact that he also happened to earn the gold medal.
3Discipleship Journal, issue 96, CD-ROM.
Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries.