I am one of the hundred thousand or so people who actually was there on the night that Cathy Freeman won gold in the women’s 400 metres at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It stands out as one of the sports-viewing highlights of my life.  

I absolutely loved the Sydney Olympics—it wasn’t just Freeman’s run, it was the whole two weeks. I watched lots of sport; saw the Olympic flame pass through my suburb; was proud of the efforts of the Olympic volunteers; and revelled in the sunny, friendly and international feel of the city. I also took part in some Christian sports ministry. 

It’s 2021 and the Olympics are once again in the air, on our screens, and in public discussions. Brisbane has just been announced as the host city for the 2032 Games, and the Tokyo Olympics are just kicking off. But these are no ordinary Games as “Tokyo 2021” itself suggests. An Olympic year with an odd number?!?! Of course, these Olympics have been delayed for a year by Covid-19 and are now taking place under its heavy shadow. 

There has been much discussion as to whether the Games should even take place. No doubt in the coming weeks, athletic performances will vie with medical concerns for dominance of the headlines. Having noted the very real public health questions, how might we think about the sporting aspects of the Games? Here are a few thoughts for the Christian viewer, Olympian, sportsperson and leader. 

The Olympics are Good but They are Not God

The modern Olympics encode a real mixture of philosophies—ancient Greek beliefs and practices, nineteenth-century “muscular Christianity”, religious ritualism, nationalism, internationalism, and commercialism. Over the years they have often been viewed as something of a secular religion. The Olympics, like all aspects of human culture, are a real mixture. 

The modern Olympics encode a real mixture of philosophies … Over the years they have often been viewed as something of a secular religion.

As Christians, we need to embrace its positives and avoid (and perhaps expose) the negatives. We can appreciate the good aspects of the Games as a gift from God. God told humanity in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth and subdue it”, and then Genesis 2:15 says: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and taken care of it”. These instructions—that is, to develop creation—are essentially a command to creature culture. This is sometimes referred to as the “cultural mandate”. 

As John Stott has said: “‘Nature’ is what God gives; ‘culture’ is what we do with it”.[2] Sport, along with other pursuits such as literature, music and dance are just some of the ways in which culture has been developed. Thus, we can enjoy the good aspects of the Games as ultimately good gifts from God. 

Of course, as many have noted, the Olympic Games, and indeed sport itself can be understood to have something of a religious element. Oxford academic Robert Ellis notes that sport has, for some:

… taken on some of the characteristics of religion, and that it may exercise functions in the individual, social, and cultural lives similar to the functions that were once exercised by organised religion. 

Ellis notes that sport, like organised religion, has ritualistic, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, experiential and material dimensions.[3] It comes as no surprise that sport becomes a god for many—both participants and fans. 

I might have won four gold medals … but everyone is a winner when they accept Jesus Christ into their life. 

—Betty Cuthbert

The Olympics can be good, but they are not God. Betty Cuthbert, the golden girl of Australian athletics in the 1950s and ’60s, came to this realisation. To this day Betty has won more athletics gold medals than any other Australian in Olympic history—four. At the 1956 Games in Melbourne she won the 100 metres and 200 metres, and anchored the victorious Australian women’s 4 x 100 metres relay team to another gold. Eight years later in Tokyo, she capped off her Olympic career with a victory in the 400 metres. 

In the years that followed, Betty developed multiple sclerosis but, far more importantly, she became a keen Christian. When I spoke to her a number of years back, she put sporting success into its proper perspective. ‘I might have won four gold medals,’ she told me, ‘but the greatest thing is to know that everyone is a winner when they accept Jesus Christ into their life.’

Performance Does not Define You

Christians in Sport (UK) addressed a blog post to the members of the English football team prior to their taking part in the recent final of the UEFA European Football Championship:

It’s the biggest match of your lives. It’s the match you’ve been building up to for years … But it’s a match that does not define you.[4]  

You are more than a sportsperson—you are created in the image of God.

That is advice that could be equally offered to all the athletes at the Toyko Olympics or to any other athlete for that matter: your performance does not define you! You are more than a sportsperson—you are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Not only that, but Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross and rose from the dead to offer you the forgiveness of sins; a restored relationship with God; adoption into God’s family; peace, power and purpose in this life; and eternal life for eternity. As the Christians in Sport blog says: 

The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is an offer of total security … If you trust in Jesus Christ He becomes what defines you.[5]

This truth has helped many Christian athletes navigate the ups and downs of sporting existence. British Olympic rower and dual silver medallist Debbie Flood reflects: ‘It was such a blessing to become a Christian before I really became immersed in the world of sport. My faith was such a massive anchor in a world that could sometimes be so selfish, in which there was the constant danger of having my identity caught up in sport, and in which it was so easy to go from hero to zero overnight.’ 

Think of God, Thank God, and Glorify God in Sport 

I’ve been told that the number of registrations at my local Little Athletics club goes up each season that follows an Olympic Games. Watching athletes competing at the pinnacle of their sport can inspire many of us to get up off the couch and get involved. Given that everything we do, sport included, is part of our Christian lives, how might we think about our sport spiritually? Could I suggest we think about God, thank God and seek to glorify God in it. 

Thinking about God

Sport, if we are involved in it, should be part of our Christian life. We should be aware of God when we participate. Since this can be easier said than done, it can be good to have a few set practices to remind us. I’ve been told Jamaican dual-Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce often recited a Bible verse when on the starting blocks before a race. And after she finished, she made a point of smiling to express gratitude to God for the opportunity to run.[6]

Thanking God

Fraser-Pryce’s post-race practice brings us to our second point—we should thank God for our sport. Paul writes to Timothy: 

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim 4:4). 

So, sport is good. It ultimately comes from God (via the cultural mandate) and, thus, we should receive it with thanksgiving. 

We can use sport to glorify God … to act and speak in a way that gives honour to God, and which reflects his greatness.

Glorify God

We can also use sport to glorify God. This means to act and speak in a way that gives honour to God, and which reflects his greatness. It involves actions: ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ (1 Cor 10:31) 

Australian brother and sister pairs figure skaters Stephen and Danielle Carr competed at three Winter Olympics in the 1990s. When they were younger, Stephen said that he prayed that God would help them to win the competitions in which they were competing. As his faith developed they prayed that God would strengthen them and that they would ‘skate for the glory of God.’

Glorifying God also involves our words:

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. (1 Chron 16:28–29a).

We can verbally acknowledge that the ability and opportunity to play sport, regardless of how we perform, comes ultimately from God. We can also use our conversation to encourage other believers and to point non-believers towards Jesus. 

This last point is a stated concern of Nicola McDermott. Nicola recently broke the Australian women’s high jump record with a leap of 2.01 metres and is currently ranked number three in the world. She also became a Christian a few years back. She states on her website: ‘High jump was once a performance-driven passion to bring meaning to life, yet now with God, it is an international platform to make the unbiased, consistent love of the King known.”[7] 

A Few Suggestions

As we watch the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, here are some suggestions:  

  • Give thanks to God as we see great performances, people doing their best, and good sportsmanship.
  • Remember that the Second Coming of Christ will be far bigger than the Opening or Closing Ceremony.
  • Pray for the Christian athletes involved, like Nicola—that they would remember God is God, and that they would have opportunities for Christian fellowship and outreach.
  • Pray for the Christian chaplains serving the athletes—much of their work being done online. 
  • Pray for the work of the gospel in the various countries we see represented.
  • Perhaps resolve to get some exercise. 
  • And, of course, pray for those suffering as a result of Covid-19 around the world. Pray that the vaccines would be widely used and effective.

[1] Aspects of this article are summaries of sections of Stephen’s book, The Good Sporting Life (Matthias Media: Sydney, 2020). Wikipedia has also provided some helpful general information. 

[2] John W Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today, (3rd ed.; Marshall Pickering: London, 1999), p. 193. 

[3] Robert Ellis, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, 2014) pp. 108–22 (quote on p. 122). 

[4] https://www.christiansinsport.org.uk/resources/this-match-does-not-define-you/

[5] https://www.christiansinsport.org.uk/resources/this-match-does-not-define-you/

[6] This was recounted to me by Stuart Weir, Executive Director of Verité Sport in the United Kingdom.

[7] https://nicolamcdermott.com/ministry-1