Seven Olympic Values: Courage

Olympic sports are not for the faint hearted. When watching the gymnasts spring triple back flips off horizontal bars, I have half expected to see a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer across the screen. There is always a risk of injury in Olympic sports, and yet for Olympic champions like BMX rider Shanaze Reade, who apparently has had to have 32 pins after a past injury, there is still the competitive drive to hurtle full speed round the track.

Today’s Olympic Value is Courage. Wikipedia states, “Courage (is referred as “bravery, boldness, fearlessness, mettle, fortitude, or intrepidity) is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation” [1] It requires considerable bravery to be prepared to take physical risks in the drive to beat the elite of the elite. But noted too by the commentators was the amazing courage and bravery of tae kwon do fighter Sarah Stevenson, who lost both her parents in he space of 11 months, her mum to Cancer, but who showed the endurance and will to carry on competing at the highest level.

Courage, it seems to me, is the value of being ready to take risks – to dive into the unknown – to be prepared to throw yourself fully into the tasks that lie ahead even where there are no guarantees of success. As a Christian, I am reminded of God’s words to Joshua as he prepared to conquer the promised land – “be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Josh 1:6). Jesus also said to his disciples when they were afraid after seeing him walk on water “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matt 14:7)

All of us have times in our lives when risks need to be taken – when our ideals and dreams demand the fullest level of commitment. It is at those times, which will not be easy, when we can take to heart the encouragements from the Bible to keep going – as 1 Corinthians 16:13 says, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.”

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courage

Seven Olympic Values: Equality

The Olympic value of Equality is best understood by the amazing testimonies of athletes that have stood out against racism and other forms of discrimination from those who viewed them as inferior. Jesse Owens is famously known for his four gold medal victories in the sprint, long-jump and relay races of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At a event when Hitler was intending to spread propaganda about the “superiority” of the Aryan race, this momentous achievement by an American black athlete blew to pieces this racist lie.

The virtue of equality is in recognising the worth and value of all people, of whatever race, gender, background or culture. But more than that, equality means recognizing for ourselves that however strong our personal patriotism or pride in our own culture, we have lessons to learn from others, and there will be many ways in which their ways are better than ours.

However, the concept of equality has been often misused, because like so many values, it can be twisted around to be used as a weapon. “Equal rights” can quickly become “Equal demands” which can become “Demands to suit me whatever others might think. “George Orwell’s famous line from animal farm, “All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others,” is a sharp warning of how societies and people groups can use the disguise of equality to further their own agendas and seek power.
To be equal to someone does not mean to be identical. In fact, the true value of recognizing that another has equal worth to you is accepting that worth despite the fact that they may be very different from you with regards to their lifestyle, opinions, personality and hobbies. I am very pleased that Woman’s Boxing has been included on the Olympics programme – but not because it implies that woman are identical to men, but because it shows that women are different and diverse in the sports they like, and some of them love boxing. I would support those who would want to include Men’s Synchronized Swimming in the Olympics programme for a similar reason.

Neither does equality mean accepting that all opinions or arguments are equally valid. In our postmodern society, there is some pressure put upon is to assume that “what I believe and my culture believes” defines who I am, and therefore to disagree with my beliefs means to discriminate against me. But as was demonstrated by Jesse Owens, whose victory challenged Hitler’s racist ideals – not all opinions and beliefs are equal – many need to be challenged.

For Christians, the value of equality comes from recognizing that we are all created beings before God, and so one person is no better than another. So Jesus said the first and most important commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37) . The second is the mark of true equality – “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:39)

Seven Olympic Values: Friendship

Today’s Olympic value is friendship.

This is my favourite of all the seven Olympic values. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is an Olympic value, because true friendship is such a precious thing, and today friendship is shouted down and overshadowed by its more brash cousin “the one relationship”.

Friendship is defined in Olympic terms as “how, through sport, to understand each other despite any differences”. I think it is this, but the Olympics have shown it to go far deeper than this. Two days ago I was watching the women’s triathlon, and was amazed in particular at the dedication of GB triathlete Lucy Hall. She finished first in the swimming, but what amazed me was her determination in the cycling leg not to try to lead the pack herself but to cycle in front of her fellow teammate Helen Jenkins, helping Helen save her energy levels for the running, since she had the best chance of a medal position.

Admittedly, it could be viewed in terms of tactics and teamwork rather than friendship, but there is something very special about the willingness of any athlete to be prepared to expend their own energy, and medal prospects, to assist and enable another athlete from their team to shine. Equally noticeable is the manner in which teams really seek to cover and repair the weaknesses of other team members. In the men’s gymnastics, after one athlete lost marks for falling off a bar his teammate seemed to work extra hard and produced an amazing performance to reduce the deficit.

It is in particular in the team events, not only cycling and gymnastics, but also tennis doubles, team fencing and team showjumping, that the selflessness and support of the athletes has struck me this week. Athletes of very different personalities, techniques and ages have shown how effectively they can work together: see for example the different ages and build of Tom Daley and Pete Waterman, yet they compete together for synchronized diving, a discipline requiring an extraordinary level of co-ordination!

True friendship is not superficial but sacrificial. There are so many aspects of it that became apparent at these Olympic games – encouragement, relying on others and allowing them to rely on you, putting aside personal ambitions to improve the chances of others on your team, and working seamlessly together.

Jesus said “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). True friendship is the value of being ready to run the extra mile for your friends – looking out for their needs rather than your own, and sacrificing your own personal wishes desires for the benefit of the stronger friendship. It is that which makes it such a wonderful Olympic value.

Seven Olympic Values: Excellence

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:

Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
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.