At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.
At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”
The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.
After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.
It was a joy to watch Mo Farah’s victories in the 5000 and 10000 metres races at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. He is a great champion who delights to run. He has dominated major athletics championships for the past 6 summers. He has won gold medals at three European Championships, three World Championships and one Olympic Games. He was so much in control of the 5000 metres race that he even had time to make a detour for a bottle of water!
Mo has a wonderful story. He was born in Somalia, a country ravaged by a long civil war. His father was British and Mo spent his childhood in Djibouti before moving to Britain when he was 8 years old. His PE teacher at Feltham Community College recognised and encouraged his athletic talent, which was then developed through a local athletics club. Mo’s success has been based on years of sustained and dedicated training. His daily regime is punishing as he strives to reach his full potential and achieve success.
The Bible uses athletics to teach us important lessons about the purpose of life. In a letter to a church at Corinth in Greece, where the Isthmian Games were held, Paul writes, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.” So Paul lived his whole life in the light of eternity.
It is important for us all to have a clear sense of purpose in our lives. This is far more significant than achieving success in sport or any other field of human activity. It has to do with the kind of people we are and the vision we have for our future. God created us to enjoy life in this world and also to enjoy eternal life with him in heaven. A recent hymn reminds us of this, “For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”
The Olympic Games have come to an end. The Olympic Cauldron has been extinguished and the Olympic Park is quiet. Athletes have returned to the 200 countries from which they came. The Olympic Games have gone well and have brought joy to many people. Many world and Olympic records have been broken, so fulfilling the Olympic motto, “Faster, higher, stronger.” Soon the Paralympic athletes will amaze us with more outstanding performances and achievements.
London 2012 has shown the amazing abilities of human beings. Every person on earth has been created by God. He knit each of us together in our mother’s womb and made us the people we are. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Each of us is unique and very precious to God, whether we are great athletes or not. Mo Farah’s elder brother, Faisal, who farms a simple smallholding in Somalia, is as precious to God as Mo, who did so well in winning 2 gold medals.
Amidst the euphoria following London 2012 many people will be given credit. It is striking, therefore, that after his victory in the 200 metres Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, put a message on Twitter, “I want to thank God for everything he has done for me cause without him none of this would have been possible.” Usain knows that his amazing ability to run is not simply the result of hours of training and hard work but has been given to him by God. As he grows older his ability to run will diminish but his relationship with God and his experience of God’s love in Jesus can grow stronger and deeper.
We do not often see people from so many nations together in one place. One of the great experiences for the athletes is to live together in the Olympic Village. There is keen rivalry and an intense desire to win but also at the Olympic Games lifelong friendships will have been formed which transcend national identity. There is a wonderful vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Unlike London 2012, the joy of heaven never ends.