Winning isn't everything at the Olympics. For Christians who have traveled to Sydney from around the world--including an American gymnast who would have fulfilled a lifelong dream by competing if not for a last-minute injury--the Games are all about witnessing.
Hundreds of visiting evangelists are taking part in outreach programs across the host city. Among them is 16-year-old Angela Beam, who defied coaches' advice to make the trip. Intent on competing at the Olympics since the age of 5, she had been considered a gold-medal contender as part of the U.S. women's gymnastics team until she was sidelined with a dislocated kneecap in July.
"It was difficult to understand why the injury happened to me at this stage in my career," she said. But "rather than becoming angry and disappointed, I rest in the knowledge that God is sovereign and in control." Although coaches recommended she stay home and recuperate, Beam decided to go to the Games with the 230-strong American group from Lay Witnesses for Christ International (LWCI).
As her teammates were competing--finishing fourth in the team final--Beam was helping with the outreach's rallies and one-on-one evangelism. "The opportunity to minister in Sydney through sports clinics and Olympian rallies is the most fulfilling thing that I can imagine," she said. "Seeing people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ is more valuable than any medal I ever could have won."
Beam's sentiments were echoed by South African swimmer and world-record holder Penny Heyns, who announced her retirement after failing to qualify for the 200-meter final. A bronze medalist in the 100 meters, she did not plan to enter the 200 because she knew she could not win. After praying, however, she decided she should take part to experience defeat, reported Reuters.
"You never know how you're going to handle setbacks or disappointments until you get there. But you know what? It's a pretty neat experience," said the 1996 double-gold winner who returned to form last year after a major slump, setting 11 world records in three months. Now the 25-year-old wants to devote her life to missionary work.
Nine-time Olympic track champion Carl Lewis and four-time Olympian Madeline Manning Mims are among other past Olympic stars who are sharing their faith at special LWCI rallies during the event. "[They] have learned that the gift of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ is much more valuable than gold," said LWCI founder Sam Mings. "God is doing a mighty work in Sydney."
Medals of a different kind are providing opportunities to share the gospel. Some evangelists are using the interest in collectors' pins to strike up conversations with visitors. John Brovold, who is leading a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) outreach and running a pin-trading table, said the badges "especially during the Olympics, are universal."
In an encounter with a Vietnam veteran on the opening day of the Games, a member of another YWAM team persuaded the man not to follow through on plans to commit suicide. When asked why he wasn't watching the opening ceremony on television, the missionary said he was there because God wanted the veteran to know he was loved. Touched by the answer, the man promised to go home and read his Bible instead of taking his life as he said he had intended.