The Gospel According to the Olympics

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 10, 2002

The Olympic Games are big at the Ryken household, especially the Winter Olympics. Figure skating, ice hockey, bobsled, Super G: we love them all–even curling. We also enjoy the opening and closing ceremonies. This year the pageantry was spectacular. There were figure skaters with fireworks, beautiful puppets of Western animals, giant snowballs bouncing around the stadium, a fantasy locomotive, and almost everything else you can imagine. Salt Lake City sure knows how to put on a show.

One of the striking features of the 2002 ceremonies was how much use they made of the symbol of light. Light has always been a traditional symbol of the Olympic movement. Before the Games begin, the Olympic torch is carried person-to-person from city to city. In this way an eternal flame is kept burning from one Olympics to the next. Then while the Games are open, a huge cauldron of fire burns atop the Olympic stadium.

This year the whole Olympic theme had to do with light: “Light the Fire Within.” In keeping with this theme, the focal character of the opening and closing ceremonies was a young boy holding out a lantern. He was accompanied by thousands of other young people called “the children of light.” Both ceremonies made effective use of light and darkness to convey the power of the light.

What is significant about these symbols of light is that they reflect the Christian Gospel. Jesus Christ is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the eternal flame, “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9). Everyone who believes in Jesus comes into his light. God lights a fire within, making “his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6). That fire within comes from the Holy Spirit, who burns in the mind and heart of every believer. The Spirit’s inward illuminating work gives us a special identity. Jesus said, “believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light” (John 12:36; KJV).

Light imagery plays all over the pages of the New Testament. Whether it was deliberate or not, this year’s Olympics borrowed some of it, trying to capitalize on light’s inherent spiritual power. As I watched the light dance across the television screen, it occurred to me how hard the Olympics try to be a spiritual experience. Sometimes they almost promise to solve the problems of the world.

The Olympics are a great force for good. They celebrate the strength, beauty, and agility of the human body. They revel in the vitality of youth. But the most amazing thing about them is the way they bring people together. There is something exciting about seeing nations from all over the world come together for a common purpose. One of the explicit goals of the “Olympic movement,” as it is called, is world peace.

On what basis do the Olympics seek to establish this peace? In Salt Lake City there were speeches about the human spirit, about setting aside our differences and coming together. There was also plenty of light, as if the light itself had the power to make things new. Then at the closing ceremonies there was a song that offered a prayer for grace. The Olympics tried to give us peace, unity, light, and grace. But in the end, all they really offered was sports. That’s all. Just sports.

Sports are wonderful. Some of my best experiences in life have involved practicing, playing, and coaching sports. In my own personal opinion, there will be sports in heaven. I say this in part because my first eschatological experience–my first foretaste of heaven–took place during a backyard baseball game when I was five years old.

However, sports can only take the world so far. Some of their limitations became obvious during these Winter Olympics. Sports make some people champions, but they also produce a lot of losers, including sore ones. Sports can lead to bitter disputes and angry disagreements. Sometimes instead of bringing nations together, they drive them apart. And they are subject to all the vagaries of human judgment. Just ask the Korean speed skaters or that poor woman from France who had to judge pairs figure skating. Then there were the cheaters, as there always are.

After all the medals were awarded and all the cheering died down, we discovered that although sports can be an enjoyable hobby, they make a poor religion. They do not shine with the true light and they cannot provide a lasting peace. One of the problems with the Olympics is that they don’t last forever. After burning brightly for two weeks, the flame over Salt Lake City was extinguished. The light was swallowed in darkness. The Games came to an end, as they always do, and even while the athletes partied on, the feelings of sadness and loss were palpable.

Everything that is good and true about the Olympics points us to what God has given us in Jesus Christ. He is the true light, and one day all nations will gather in his brightness. The Bible promises that when the world and all its games are over, there will be a celebration to end all celebrations. It will be the most amazing spectacle that anyone has ever seen. It will “not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light… . The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Rev. 21:23-24, 26).

In that parade of nations there will be no losers, only winners–champions for Christ. Everyone there will be a child of light. And the celebration will go on forever.

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