Olympic God

This week, two American olympians outperformed expectations and won a silver medal in synchronized diving. In their television interview after the event, they did something remarkable. David Boudia and Steele Johnson delivered a sound-bite-sized homily to NBC reporter Kelli Stavast that stands out among athlete interviews. 

Here’s a transcript. 

Stavast: “What does it mean to come out and medal here in the synchro event?” 
Boudia: “Yeah, I just think the past week, there’s just been an enormous amount of pressure, and I’ve felt it. You know, it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ. 
“And we’re just, we’re thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil, in front of the United States, and it’s been an absolutely thrilling moment for us.” 
Stavast: “You now have gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals. How much does this free you up for the individual event?”
Boudia: “It does. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, but this never could have happened without Steele, without him pushing me, without him loving me well, encouraging me. And my wife has just been a solid rock, and I couldn’t have done it without them.” 
Stavast: “Well, and Steele, for you, your first ever Olympic event, how were you able to maintain your composure so well?” 
Johnson: “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest. If something went great, I was happy. If something didn’t go great, I could still find joy because I’m at the Olympics competing with the best person, the best mentor, just one of the best people to be around. 
“So, God’s given us a cool opportunity, and I’m glad I could’ve come away with an Olympic silver medal in my first ever event.” 
Stavast: “Alright, congratulations.”

Typically, I am skeptical of post-game winner interviews that play the religion card. As a pastor, I feel a certain obligation to cheer for such appearances of God on a big cultural stage, but I’m conflicted by several issues. 

First, losers never give God credit. Christian winners are quick to share the glory, and rightly so. But in the face of post-game locker room cameras, Christian losers seem to forget the wisdom of Ecclesiastes:  

 When times are good, be happy; 
    but when times are bad, consider this: 
God has made the one
    as well as the other. 

Also, I don’t think God takes sides in many sporting events. Despite all the jokes about the Dallas Cowboys, God isn’t terribly concerned with who wins. He’s more concerned with the character of the people competing and watching. And since character most often grows through hardship, the greater blessing might go to the loser.  

For those reasons, I always feel a bit conflicted when athletes thank God for winning. So I was interested when Boudia and Johnson didn’t. Instead, they put their achievement in perspective. They declared that there is something more important in life than an olympic medal. They gave us a glimpse into the idolatrous temptation to see themselves primarily as divers or olympians or winners rather than children of God. 

That idea is radically countercultural. Our culture is obsessed with winning. We overpay athletes. We make competitions out of every endeavor. One of our leading candidates for president is running almost exclusively on his self-endowed label as a “winner.” American sport is the atmosphere that produced Red Sanders’s famous quote: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing." 

David Boudia and Steele Johnson managed to deliver a profound truth about culture and identity it in the kind of 60-second interview that typically contains nothing of substance. For  viewers like me who are skeptical of genie-in-a-bottle faith, it was a refreshing change.