Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.- 1 Corinthians 9:25
Every four years, the Olympics brings into our homes images of athletes who have made almost unbelievable sacrifices to achieve their level of expertise. They rise long before dawn, go on extended training sessions, follow carefully restricted diets, buffet their bodies and push themselves far beyond normal levels of pain to hone their skills to the finest edge imaginable. They go into financial debt and put most human relationships on hold. They live in Spartan training centers and reduce their lives to one over-riding passion. And they do it all for a small disc of gold and the remarkably short-lived adulation of a watching world. Can you, for example, name anyone who won an Olympic gold medal at the 1960 winter games in Squaw Valley, California?
I’ve often thought that Olympic athletes are among the biggest gamblers in the world. This is especially true of the winter Olympics which glide on a knife edge on unpredictable surfaces of frozen water. One slight slip, and years of brutal sacrifice go instantly up in flames. A ski jumper flies down the 90-meter ski jump, his right leg wobbles, he loses his balance and crashes. A pairs skating team goes into their final throw with a chance at the gold medal…she flies through the air, lands awkwardly, falls and slides to the boards. A prime example of this was seen in gold-medal favorite Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in the 500-meter speed skating preliminary. Wotherspoon lined up in his starting position, the gun sounded, he took four strides and caught his blade in the ice. His tumble to the ice ended all hope of a medal in a race decided by hundredths of a second. His gamble ended a mere three seconds into the attempt.
Paul ruminated on all this a long time ago in writing to the Greek Christians in Corinth. They knew well about the Corinthian Isthmian games that were held regularly, on which the modern Olympic gams are based. They knew that those athletes went into “strict training” (1 Cor. 9:25) in order to gain a crown that was perishable…probably a wreath of wild celery, according to some scholars. That wreath would be withered before the week was gone. Yet Paul found in the unflagging determination and sacrificial zeal of the Corinthian athletes something worthy of imitation. They stripped away from their lives everything that did not contribute to their goal of winning the prize. They competed according to the rules. And they were willing to suffer untold agonies to win that prize. All of that for something perishable.
How much more should Christians be willing to undergo “strict training” for the gospel? How much more should Christians be willing to do what Paul says he did: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that, after I have preached to others, I myself may not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27). The eternal prize is both the joy of leading someone to Christ and the reward of God’s praise and approval on a race run well, a race run according to the rules. It is the joy of standing next to someone in heaven who is there through the Spirit’s use of your testimony, as well as the praise of the King who says “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” And it will never perish, though a thousand eons should pass.
"Yet Paul found in the unflagging determination and sacrificial zeal of the Corinthian athletes something worthy of imitation."
Should not the single-minded dedication of Jeremy Wotherspoon be a challenge to all Christians? His sacrifice was a gamble, but ours is not. Any efforts made by the power of the Spirit for the glory of Christ will result in eternal fruit!