Olympic fever has gripped the nation – and it is as I watch the rowing that I am writing this next series of blog posts. To make up for the recent sleepy Summer break my blog has been having, I have felt inspired to write 7 posts in 7 days on the Seven Olympic values. Not as much as a mammoth effort as Jessica Ennis’ heptathlon, but for me, still a worthy Olympic feat.
The Seven Official Olympic Values are 3 for the Olympics (Excellence, Friendship and Respect), and 4 for the Paralympics (Inspiration, Courage, Equality and Respect) . They sound pretty worthy. But as a Christian, the question I have is – how am I to interpret these values? Are they truly Christian values, or just secular values?
Today’s Olympic Value is Excellence.
When I first heard about the Olympic Values, I joked that surely there was only one Olympic value as far as most countries are concerned – winning. Some countries which will remain nameless, seem to take this “value” more seriously than others – even in some events viewing the silver medal as a failure.
I am overjoyed at the impressive medal haul of Team GB at the Olympics so far – but I find it interesting that in some events, where a gold is expected, a silver medal is met with disappointment. I am just watching two British rowers who have been defending a gold medal title, and “just” getting a silver medal is described by commentators as a disaster, and the rowers are in tears. For those expecting a bronze however, a silver medal can cause elation. There have also been some 6th place finishes where the British athletes are jubilant – having smashed their personal goals and bests!
At an initial glance, this Olympic value of Excellence can seem the closest to “winning” that we have in our seven values. The word excellent is sometimes seen as being similar to outstanding. To be outstanding is to be the best – to be marked out as distinctively above all the rest. The official Olympics slogan “faster, higher, stronger” highlights this.
Yet I remember when my Primary School changed its motto from “Truth, Faith and Godliness” to “Truth, Faith and Excellence”, being rather miffed. “Godliness” was deemed to be an outmoded virtue, but for me, adopting the word “Excellence” was selling out to the Ofsted-fueled bandwagon of the Education system in which schools sought to promote themselves to the top of the table at the expense of all others. The egalitarian in me has always balked at the relentlessly driven nature of all schools pursuing the golden “outstanding” rating – because not every school can achieve it. If all schools were “outstanding” – none of them would be – they would all be normal. An outstanding school therefore might be tempted to gloat and look down upon the efforts of lesser schools. And yet simultaneously, I remember my early school teachers assuring me that excelling was not as important as “doing your best”.
Is it a Christian value to be “the best”? To stand out head and shoulders above the others? Jesus famously said “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt 20:16). Jesus served others, and he wasn’t self promoting. But he clearly was the best, and did everything to the best of his ability. In Phillipians 2:5-8, Saint Paul says:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
But when I am cheering on the GB athletes from a comfy armchair as I watch them push themselves to their limits, and proudly sing along to our National Anthem each time Team GB gets a gold. In Olympic terms, the dedication and drive and hard work of all the athletes have done is wonderful. We rightly celebrate every victories – and the genuine achievements of athletes that pushed themselves to their limits. I certainly am not advocating that we take the “first shall be last and the last first” literally when Great Britain sits in 3rd on the medal table!
But what is the real quality of excellence? The official Olympic statement, describes Excellence not in terms of “winning” but as “how to give the best of oneself, on the field of play or in life; taking part; and progressing according to one’s own objectives.” Of course, this can lead to being devastated if your objective is to win a gold and you win a silver. But there is something more to excellence than the result you achieve. It is about striving and pushing to be the best you can be.
The Bible applauds excellence in this fashion. Paul says in Philippians 4:8; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” The Christian life is not about resting on our laurels. It is about straining to use the gifts God has given us to be the best we can be – as good, holy, strong, diligence, servant hearted and impacting as we can. But not for our own glory – for the glory of God.