Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Boxing great Muhammad Ali holds the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

I’ve been asked to contribute to Beliefnet’s forthcoming series on the Olympics.  I’ll keep you posted on when that series airs, but in the meantime, here are some reflections on what the Olympics teach me about the marriage of vulnerability and  glory:

As a girl who spent so much time swimming laps in southern California pools that her hair turned green, I was enamored with the Olympics- not just the events themselves, but the moving, sometimes angst-ridden stories behind them.  Athletes who had given their all for this final moment of reckoning.  Coaches and families who had poured their resources into these aspiring men and women.  Longtime champions and come-from-behind underdogs whose faith and endurance had carried them to a first-place finish.

Somehow, all those tomato paste applications for green hair, the perpetual smell of chlorine on the skin, and red, stinging eyes and sore muscles seemed worth it when I could watch someone like distance freestyler Janet Evans, (who at 40 recently came out of retirement to announce that she will compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic trials), capture three gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

When some years later I competed at the “Janet Evans Invitational” swim meet, in Fullerton, California, the mere fact that this Olympic great and I were swimming in the same event filled me with awe.  No matter that Janet was in the final heat (heat 26 or something) and I  in heat 5.  No matter that I never got to shake her hand.  The T-shirt, a navy blue, silver-emblemed testament to the fact that I swam with Janet, was enough.  (I still wear it to this day, thanks to some highly durable cotton.)

Similarly, when in the summer before my senior year of high school I set my alarm every morning for a 4am wake-up call in order to drive one hour to Fullerton, California to be at a three-hour swim practice- this followed by another two hours of swim practice later that same afternoon- just knowing that my coach had coached Olympic greats like Janet was enough to get me out of bed each morning.

Crazy? Maybe, a bit.  Inspiration can do that to you.  It also drove me to see a sports hypnotist and to withstand a whole year of Division I college swimming, including often being mistaken for my look-a-like teammate, Suzanne Heiser.  (Suzanne happened to take first by several pool lengths in all her events while I would straggle in at about second to last, which meant that these moments of misplaced congratulation were, well, a bit awkward.)

Inspiration.  The Olympics inspired me.  And, I suppose that even now, when allegations of widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs cast a long shadow, the Olympics still inspire many of us.

Maybe that’s because if these athletes on the platforms, high bars and fields speak to our capacity to do anything to win (including, unfortunately, cheat), they also represent the very best in us.  Our potential.  Our courage.  Our commitment.  Our ability to overcome tribulation.  They hold out the very best in us and remind us that it is there when we have forgotten it.

We can tend to talk a lot about these qualities that make an Olympian, character traits like courage and commitment, but in such conversations one quality often goes over-looked: vulnerability.  It must have taken a great deal of vulnerability to compete in the nude in the first Olympics in ancient Greece.  (Can you imagine?) Still, even today, no high-speed swim suit will do away with this requirement that an athlete, in competing, be subject to publicly beheld pain, hurt, failure, defeat, humiliation, or even triumph.  (Even winning can make you feel vulnerable afterall.)

The Greeks thought you were only competing if you were naked. How's that for vulnerable?

And, I suspect that this vulnerability, if it is not a precondition, at least goes hand in hand with the glory.  The glory of winning, of finishing, of merely competing as one in a pantheon of great athletes, cannot exist apart from an openness to all the vagaries of competition.  That vulnerability, I suspect, is the thing that unites us most fundamentally in our humanity around these athletes.

Because we don’t have to be a top-flight athlete to appreciate the ways in which we, each of us, face hurt, failure or loss in the races that we may have thought at the outset were ours to win.  We don’t have to jump hurdles to know that we each of us face our own unique ones.  Yet somehow these places of deepest vulnerability can be the very sites where God’s glory shines brightest, transforming us, as Kristine Culp argues in Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, more and more into the likeness of God’s image.  (See Sarah Morice Brubaker’s review of Kulp’s book in The Christian Century, August 9, 2011.)

Vulnerability and glory: the suspense and inspiration of the Olympics, I suspect, reside most fundamentally in these two wedded motifs.  I see them in the shining face of boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who with trembling limbs due to Parkinsons’ holds high the Olympic torch in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  I see them in the pain and tears of British runner Derek Redmond collapsing on the track in the 400 meter semi-final of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, having torn his hamstring, and his father’s rush to Derek’s side so the two of them can finish the race together.  (The video, below, still makes me cry every time I watch it.)

And, I see them, too, every day, in maybe smaller, less dramatic but equally meaningful ways: a poignant pastiche of vulnerability and glory.  When one of my children gets up again after a skinned knee.  Or, a friend tells me she isn’t going to let a past failure tell her who she is.  Or, someone deeply wounded by the church keeps coming back to Jesus in spite of His people.  Or, a dear one grieving the loss of her husband tells me she’s learning to live again.  There they are, too.  Mini Olympic moments.  They make me want to cheer.  They make me want to believe that in the end faith, hope and love really do win.

And there, in the midst of them, are the sweat, tears and humiliation of a God who glorifies Himself on a cross.

Got a favorite or most memorable Olympic moment to share?  Leave it below!

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