Athletic history has been re-written as Michael Phelps tore through the Olympic Games winning an unprecedented eight gold medals.
What kind of life allows such a pinnacle of success? When asked to describe a typical day, Phelps has repeatedly told journalists that his routine involves just three things: “eat, sleep, swim.”
And from that simple response, the phrase “eat, sleep, swim” has become iconic, showing up on t-shirts and athletic wear around the world.
As I have joined millions around the world in watching the Olympic Games, inspired by the dedication the athletes have brought to this moment of competition, a nagging feeling kept invading – one that almost made me feel guilty for being unpatriotic or simply a poor sport.
“They’ve given their lives for this?”
Sure, Phelps is a millionaire and will be joined by such figures as Dara Torres on the motivational circuit and, if they so desire, for broadcast duties for future Olympic Games. Many will go home to marketplace careers that have nothing to do with their competitions, yet answer deeply fulfilling vocational calls. Many will run to the arms of loving spouses and children. Others will begin university studies that have been put on hold.
But they may be the exceptions to the rule.
In one of the more insightful pieces to run on the Games, Benedict Carey of the New York Times explores what happens after the games for the vast majority of the athletes. In an article titled, After Glory of a Lifetime, Asking ‘What Now?’ he writes movingly of the day decathlete Bruce Jenner crossed the finish line in the 1,500 meters in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, knowing he had won the gold medal and set a world record.
He just didn’t know what he was going to do for dinner.
A friend lent him the use of a luxury suite, and in the room was a grand piano. He thought to himself, “Huh, maybe I should learn to play the piano. I mean, I was extremely satisfied but also devastated by the finality of it all.”
“You’re talking about people who have trained for years, almost every day, and made huge sacrifices,” in their relationships, career, all of it, said sports psychologist Charlie Brown. “And for some of them once they have this huge, intense experience, it’s a very fragile situation afterwards.” Carey cites a 1982 study which found that only 17 percent of former Olympians made the transition back to the workplace without significant emotional distress, including substance abuse and depression.
But it doesn’t take an Olympian to face this challenge.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 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” (I Corinthians 9:24-25, NIV).
In truth, we are all in a set of games; a competition that dwarfs the Olympics - which is momentary and transitory - with rewards that, in the end, are fleeting and without significance. Our contest is as large as life itself, and the prize is one that will determine and shape not only our place in this world, but our place in the world to come…and it calls for our very best.
And these games are worth it.
James Emery White
“After Glory of a Lifetime, Asking ‘What Now?’”, Benedict Carey, The New York Times, Monday, August 18, 2008, p. A1 and A7.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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