Great Life Lessons from the Olympics

I enjoyed participating in many sports when when I was young.  Basketball was my favorite, but I also played football and track & field competitively while minoring in golf, tennis, bowling and other athletic pursuits.

One memory tells the tale about how sports motivated me. I would watch various competitions on television and the adrenaline would begin to flow. After the event ended, I remember rising from my chair in the living room, going outside and doing a full sprint across our yard, hurdling a three foot fence with gusto!

If I tried doing that today, I’m sure I would beak both legs and end up in the hospital.

Sports motivated me. It also taught me many valuable lessons that I continue to apply in the more important areas of life.

Here are some of the great life lessons from the current Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

I must admit that my wife and I really enjoyed watching the Olympics this year. I normally go to bed fairly early. But when the Olympics were on, I just couldn’t bear to jump in the sack when the greatest athletes in the world were setting records one continent to the south. I delayed my bedtime to 11 pm and sometimes midnight just to relish the thrill of seeing the best of the best.

In some ways, this year’s games are a pick-me-up from the sad state of this year’s presidential election.  Normally, I’m more focused on electing the next leader of the free world. This year I’m greatly concerned– and doing a lot of praying.

I hate to admit that the thrill of the Rio Olympics has served as a pleasant distraction from politics.

I also enjoy the Olympics because I’ve had the privilege of sharing the Gospel at a number of them and can easily picture the scene. Evangelism is also happening this year in Rio–thousands of believers taking to the streets and sharing their faith with those who live in Brazil and have come from other nations.

Youth With A Mission pioneered the concept of using large sporting events as an opportunity to lift up Christ. It began with the 1972 Munich Games where nine Israeli athletes were brutally killed by terrorists. After that tragedy, many young YWAMers took to the streets, passing out roses to comfort the mourning.

I worked with 5000 outreach participants at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. It was a tremendous summer of harvest. One afternoon at the LA Games I was doing street evangelism with a local pastor when I came upon a $100 bill laying in the middle of the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard. I lunged to pick it up just before another person got there. He was homeless and blurted out, “Oh, you beat me to it!”

We used that occasion to take him out for lunch, share the Good News of salvation with him, and he gave his life to the Lord. We helped him use the remainder of the money to buy some clothes and go on with his life.

I traveled with a King’s Kids team throughout Spain during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In ’96, we joined with 4000 Kings Kids in Atlanta Georgia in a phenomenal outreach to that great city.

I’ll never forget the Athens Olympics in 2004 when I was standing in the main square of the city with a leading evangelical leader as the worship group Delirious and a number of Olympic athletes shared their faith with the throng of thousands. My Greek friend commented that this was the first time in 2000 years that the Gospel was being shared openly in the Orthodox-controlled nation of Greece.


So I have some treasured Olympic memories–especially ones of the heart. But athletic ones also still speak to me.

For example, this Olympics has been extremely insightful. The Bible says that a “person’s gift with take him  before kings” (Proverbs 18:16). This year’s Games will be remembered as the one where a few of the greatest athletes of all time showed up in the same city. Not just greatest this year, or greatest in a generation, but greatest of all time. At least three come to mind.

  • Michael Phelps, with 23 gold medals in swimming and 28 Medals over all in five different Games is certainly both the greatest Olympian ever and the greatest swimmer bar none.
  • Usain Bolt from Jamaica – not only the world’s fastest human, but the greatest sprinter ever in the history of the world. This year he won both the 100 and 200 meters for the third straight time. No one has ever come close to that type of dominance in the sprints.
  • Simone Biles – another American who is not only the greatest gymnast in the world at 19, but probably the greatest gymnast ever. She was the world champion for three years prior to taking four golds and one silver in Rio–so dominating the all-around competition that she beat the other competitors by a higher point differential that the combined total of the past eight Games.

I’d stay up to midnight any day to watch little (4 foot 8 inch) Simone Biles work her magic in the floor exercise with a grace and power never ever seen before.

Brought tears to our eyes many nights.

So what are some of the lessons we can learn form this year’s Olympians that can be applied to all arenas of life?

Here are my top seven.

1. Follow your dreams with faith. This is the mantra of most Olympic athletes. They had a dream to be a champion or Olympian and didn’t say no to that dream. In Simone Biles’ case, that meant being home-schooled, skipping all the proms and dances, and working out in the gym. But faith took her to the top.

2. Work hard through the struggles of life. Life is hard and it has many turns and curves that can not only hinder us, but destroy us. But never, never, never give up.  Perseverance is the master key to being successful in anything that you do. Keri Walsh Jennings, probably the greatest beach volleyball player of all-time, worked through three excruciating injuries just to make it to Rio. Champions don’t give in.

3.  Supportive families – what a blessing they are!  I generally don’t like commercials, but some of them during the Olympics were real heart thumpers. One showed a mother cheering on her “Olympian” from the earliest of ages and ended with these words: “It takes someone strong to make someone strong.” (You can watch the full version here.) Amen. Champion your kids dreams and always back them to achieve it.

4. Cheaters don’t prosper – A very telling moment in the Rio Games came when American 19 year-old Lilly King watched a Russian female swimmer compete in an event where she had tested positive for illegal drugs. Lilly waved her finger at her, and then beat her the next night–telling the whole world that she was clean and that cheaters don’t prosper. That’s not always true in life, but it is in eternity.

5.  Consistency is a supreme virtue. I again refer you to the greatest athletes of all-time who achieved that status because of their longevity and consistency. You can do the same in your life and job. Be consistent in your words and actions. Develop a lifetime of faithfulness that shows the world who you serve.

6.  It takes a lifetime to build a good name and one moment to destroy it. One of the tragic incidents of the Rio Games was the scandal involving celebrated Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte who went partying and drinking with three other American swimmers, tore up a service station trying to find a bathroom, then lied to the world that they had been “robbed.” Lochte was the second most decorated Olympian next to Michael Phelps. He took a lifetime to achieve that goal and threw it away (and probably millions of dollars in endorsements) through one night of excess. Don’t give up your good name for the stupid pleasures of sin.

7. Your most important identity is in Christ. My favorite faith testimony during the Rio Games took place when American sychronized swimmers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson, captured a silver medal. While billions of people were watching, they both turned to the cameras and said, “We could find our identity from diving and the worldwide acclaim, but we know that is fleeting. We find our true identity in the Person of Jesus Christ who never changes.”

Checkmate. Gold Medal. Exactly right.

Our identity is not found ultimately in our achievements, medals, successes or failures–not if we’re world famous athletes or we are a person who is little known.

The greatest gold in life is running the race with Jesus and rooting our being in Him.

Knowing Christ is greater than gold.


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