This is not news to many of you: I love the Olympics! It doesn’t make much sense considering how very un-athletic I am, but I have been drawn to the Summer and Winter Games since childhood. There is something about watching people who have spent years training for one moment. I’m always so proud of them; so excited when they win, and even just that they had the opportunity to compete.
The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics ended this past weekend. (Yes, they are still officially the 2020 Olympics even though they took place in 2021.) As we have since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, our family spent time each night recreating a moment from the Games and posting it on Facebook. It started as a goofy thing 7.5 years ago and has turned into a tradition. If you have seen our posts, you may wonder how we pick which moments we will highlight. The easy answer is that we pick who we look at least a little like and what we have costumes/wigs for. The longer answer is that I spend time reading the stories of the day and try to pick stories of athletes that inspire me. Here are a few of those stories from this year (ones we recreated and ones we didn’t):
Like many others, I was inspired by US gymnast Simone Biles knowing her mental and physical limits and stepping back to take care of herself. After the support she received for that decision, she posted on Twitter, “The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” That post broke my heart because she has spent her life believing that she is only worth what she produces. That’s not the Gospel. We are all beloved children of God no matter what. God loves us if we never win a single Olympic medal, let alone seven. I hope that as time progresses that Simone Biles leans into that feeling of being more than her accomplishments.
Speaking of gymnasts, one of the pictures we did recreate was of Oksana Chusovitina thanking her supporters. Chusovitina was competing in her eighth Olympic Games, after already setting the record at seven back in Rio 2016. She is also the oldest female gymnast to compete (at 46) and has competed under three different national teams. She is one of just a few mothers to compete in gymnastics at international competitions. Chustovitina’s story inspires me not only for her perseverance, but also for how she is respected among other gymnasts. They were the ones giving her a standing ovation after her final vault. They were the ones asking for selfies and sharing stories of her with the press and on social media.
Another story that captured our attention was that of high jumpers Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy. After they both tried three times to clear the 2.39 meters (they had both already cleared 2.37 meters), the referee came over to discuss their options. Barshim asked the referee if they could just share the gold, and the referee told them they could. The two celebrated together and the world celebrated with them. What many may not know is that they have been friendly competitors for 11 years after meeting at world junior championships. They also have both suffered similar ankle injuries that could have been career ending. They have supported each other over the years and now get to share the rank of the best high jumper at the Olympics. This story feels like it could be a parable. I can just imagine Jesus beginning, “There were two athletes at the top of their sport . . .” and ending with “The Kingdom of God looks like sharing your accomplishments with your competitor and the world.”
There are other stories that I don’t have room to share here: youngest Olympian of these games, 12-year-old table tennis player Hend Zaza of Syria who trained in the dark because bombings left her neighborhood without power; US sprinter Allyson Felix, who is now the most decorated track and field athlete from the US with 11 medals and who has helped change how sponsors like Nike treat pregnant and post-partum athletes; British diver Tom Daley, who not only won his first Olympic gold medal but also spent his time when not training knitting a sweater and a medal cozy; and so many others. This is what I really love about the Olympics. Yes, we get to see these athletes at the top of their game, but we also get these stories of their humanity. We learn about athletes that train in sub-optimal conditions and still make their national team and compete on a world stage. We see people at their best, and even at their worst. Through it all, we are reminded that they are beloved children of God and are our neighbors. The Paralympics begin in Tokyo on August 24, and the Winter Games begin in Bejing on February 4. I hope as we watch these events that we look for the stories of our neighbors and see the divine image in them. Let’s celebrate their athletic accomplishments and, more importantly, their innate value as beloved children of God.