“Own” the podium—or share it?

During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, as in all other professional or amateur athletic competitions, it is easy for participants to confuse what it means to have the right stuff with just plain old being stuffed—with ego and pride.

The Canadian Olympic Committee, VANOC, and Canada’s sport federations established the Own The Podium program five years ago with the goals of winning more medals than any other country at this year’s Olympics. The Canadian public spent heavily for the opportunity to thump our collective chest: a total of about $117 million was spent on athletes, equipment, facilities, and support organizations—$66 million of this was taxpayer dollars.

But on Monday, February 22nd, reality hit—or maybe one could say bit! With seven days of sports competition remaining, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that they had failed to achieve their team’s goal of finishing first overall in the medal count. “We are going to be short of our goal,” CEO Chris Rudge admitted at the team’s daily news briefing. “We’d be living in a fool’s paradise if we said we were going to catch the Americans and win. We’re not throwing in the towel [Canada is presently 5th in the overall medal count]. You never do that when you are in the middle of a fight, but it’s difficult. They are way out ahead at this point and it would be unrealistic to state that we are going to catch them.”

Some commentators have been having fun with this uncharacteristic Canadian Olympic hubris by suggesting that the best we, Canadians, can do is occasionally rent the podium from the Americans and Germans!

Is athletics strictly a fight to own the podium? Is getting gold, silver, or bronze what counts to the exclusion of all else? Our present materialistic society makes it all too easy for both those with elite athletic prowess as well as your common everyday couch spud to confuse what should be our most important goal as well as the nature of true success. Yet, there is a real difference between what is temporary and what is enduring in terms of significant achievement.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon who is attending the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, says you don’t need to be first to be successful. “The various national media mostly focus on how many gold medals their nation’s team win, and where they stand in the total medal count in relationship to other countries. That’s not the point.”

The point for sports participation should be about personal improvement and growth through training and self-discipline. It is also about encouraging fellow teammates to reach their own personal goals. That philosophy helped Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong to become the first men on the moon 40 years ago.

For years Aldrin and Armstrong trained together and encouraged each other to develop the technical capabilities, physical stamina, and mental self-discipline that they would need as a team to go to the moon and come back alive. They had to master many challenges.

For Olympians, Aldrin observed, “everything adds to what has been achieved before. Between each Olympics, the standard is improving as the maturing of the human body learns how to behave and train itself to a much higher degree.”

Familiar with the Olympic sports of ancient Greece thousands of years ago, the Apostle Paul made an analogy that seeking first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness was not all that dissimilar from the training an athletic undertakes to gain a winner’s wreath at a sports competition:

You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Message trans.)

The big difference between the Christian’s spiritual Olympics and the International Olympic Committee’s games is to be found in both the goal and the exclusivity. How do you compare the prize of a never-ending, fascinating life and the power to make a real difference in this world as part of a winning team of like-minded people with the prize VANOC will hand out this year: a piece of metal on a ribbon with a footnote in sports history?

While the IOC limits its podium to three medal winners who “own” the podium for a fleeting moment of glory, the Christian “Olympics” has a podium that will be “shared” by millions but their glory will never fade or be forgotten. Make no mistake, the personal diligence, spiritual growth, and mature self-disciple required to win the spiritual race described above by the Apostle Paul requires a total commitment to overcome and prevail by a spiritual athlete for an entire lifetime. Such a high calling and goal will some day win gold at the Divine Olympics. As Bruce Coburn sings in one of his current hits, “I’m thinking about eternity.”