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My joy in the way God has made me

This week the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begins. More than 4500 athletes from 163 countries will compete in 539 events in 22 sports. Sadly, the two athletes from Afghanistan have not been able to travel because of the political turmoil in the country. Zakia Khudadadi, who competes in taekwondo, would have been the first female athlete ever to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympic Games is a very special event at which people with disabilities demonstrate amazing skills and the way they have overcome adversity.

Anna Tipton represented Great Britain in goalball at the London Paralympics in 2012, where she was the highest scorer for Team GB. Anna was born with a retina cell disorder which meant she had tunnel vision and found playing sport a nightmare. She couldn’t see either the ball or her teammates clearly and often felt she was the weakest link in the team. PE lessons in school were very stressful.

When she was in her early teens Anna and her visually impaired brother, Michael, were introduced to the sport of goalball. The game is played with three players on each side all wearing blind folds and attempting to throw the ball into a goal the width of the court. The ball has a bell in it so that players can use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Able-bodied athletes are also blindfolded when playing goalball.

When Anna was in her mid-teens, she became a Christian. She understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her a personal relationship with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and her faith. Anna says, “Being a Christian is about the ins and outs of your life, including sport. God is there with you. Every time I play it’s like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.” 

Anna is now a mother with a young son. She no longer competes in elite sport but continues to know God’s nearness and unchanging love. She prays that those who know her, including her former teammates, will also experience God’s love in Jesus. She says, “My teammates have seen the best and worst of me and all my emotions as we’ve competed together. I’ve always been open about my faith and the fact that God is at the heart of everything I do.”

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When we fail

The XXXII Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo after a one-year delay. Many Japanese people are unhappy that the Games are being held and at most events there will be no spectators present because of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 10,000 athletes from 206 nations will compete in 33 different sports. The preparations for these Games have been especially difficult for athletes, but many have arrived in Tokyo hoping to win an Olympic medal.

It is important for athletes to know how to cope with both success and failure. Nicola McDermott, the first Australian female high-jumper to clear two metres, explains: “When your identity is based on what you do – a performance-based identity – it will never satisfy. I found that I could never jump high enough to be truly satisfied. But when your identity is based on the fact that you are loved by God…that allows me to perform out of joy and freedom.”

Felix Sanchez, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400 metres hurdles in 2004 and 2012, says: “You see a lot of athletes say how blessed they are when they win, but you don’t hear it so much when they lose. They don’t realise that God’s grace is the same whether you win or lose – God just sees you the same. He’s given us this platform to compete and whether we win or lose is not important. It is important that we demonstrate our faith, make him proud with the talent he has given us and give thanks to him.”

Swimmer, Kirsty Balfour, went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a serious medal contender, but didn’t even make the semi-finals. Speaking of her disappointment, she says: “My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my teammates. All the money and the time that had been invested in working towards Beijing was gone.”

Yet as a Christian, in the midst of the turmoil, Kirsty had a great sense of God’s presence. The words of the song ‘How great is our God’ kept coming to her mind: “He is the name above all names and is worthy to be praised. My heart will sing, how great is our God”. She says: “It was amazing to have that and to know I was standing on the rock of Jesus. I was able to say: ‘Yes, Jesus you are in it. You are here. This was your will.’” She says: “Sometimes when it goes badly, God gets more glory in your reaction than when you win a medal.”

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Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”