I'm a huge gymanstics fan, so beyond the excitement of the women -- who always get tons of press coverage -- it was great to see the men do so well, especially after injuries sidelined the Hamm brothers. Raj Bhavsar -- who deserved to be on the team outright -- switched from an alternate to a major player in helping the men snag a team bronze medal. Alexander Artemev -- who is famously inconsistent -- was the last man standing and had to accomplish his crowd-pleasing, extremely difficult pommel horse routine under the most intense pressure imaginable. And succeeded brilliantly. And sparkplug Jonathan Horton led the team throughout the event, giving the performance of his life on apparatus after apparatus.
So I was cheering Horton when he competed on the horizontal bar for an individual medal. At the last minute, Horton added in some hugely challenging elements because he knew he didn't have a chance of medaling without them. Before he was ready to go, Horton was bending down next to those giant tubs of chalk the athletes are always dipping their hands into. Horton bowed his head for a moment, collecting his thoughts, and I wondered if he was praying.
It wouldn't surprise me. I spoke to Horton about his faith at Madison Square Garden during a pre-Olympics event. "Definitely, I live my life by Phillipians 4:13: 'Do all things through Him which strengthens me,'" said Horton when I asked him if there were any Bible passages in particular that inspired him. (I knew his faith was important to Horton, who is a Southern Baptist. The exact quote from King James that he paraphrased is: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.") He then pulled out a medallion hanging around his neck. "My sister gave me this. It says, 'Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.' I keep my faith in the Lord knowing that He'll keep me safe. That's how I get through this sport because it's so crazy and pretty intense."
We didn't have much time to talk but I started to raise the question of faith in sports. Personally, I find it absurd for athletes to praise God and give thanks for winning an event, as if God cares about someone winning the 100 meter dash. Surely such temporal matters are far beneath the concerns of God. People who think God would ever care about a high school football game or the World Series or Olympic diving -- to me -- have a very limited, earthbound idea about what truly matters. So I get annoyed when athletes point to the sky or act as if God wanted them to win the pole vault or weightlifting or ping pong. It's almost as silly as thinking God decided they SHOULDN'T win a particular event because it's part of His plan.
When I jokingly said to Horton that it's hard to thank God when you've just fallen on your face (Have you ever heard an athlete praise God after LOSING an event? Not often.), Horton gave a winning reply. "I actually did a crazy release move a couple of years ago in Vegas and smashed my face on the bar. Have you seen that? I hit the ground and said, 'Thank you I'm not dead," he laughed.
Which leads me to archery. The New York Times uncovered a scandalous situation on the US archery team. The brilliant head coach -- Kisik Lee -- has been abusing his position of trust by proseletyzing among the athletes and making those who don't follow his particular form of evangelical Christianity deeply uncomfortable. The USOC has been aware of the situation but since the athletes naturally are worried complaining will kill their chances on the team, the officials can generally turn a blind eye and say complaints have been rare.
Lee makes several outrageous comments, such as that he finds it harder to coach someone who doesn't share his beliefs. If that's true, he doesn't deserve the job of coach. It would be unacceptable for a coach to say they find it hard to work with people of another race or gender. It's just as unacceptable for a coach to say he finds it "hard" to work with someone who is a Unitarian Universalist or Jewish or Catholic or Buddhist or -- God forbid -- an atheist. If he can't properly coach people in archery who profess different beliefs (which should basically never come up anyway), he doesn't deserve the name "coach" and should resign. Lee is the one being anti-religous here, not those who would complain.
Lee insists he can't help himself, that he naturally wants to bring people to Christ. But you don't bring people to Christ by abusing a position of trust. More bizarrely, he insists that Christians probably make better archers. Here's a quote that Bill Maher would love.
To be an effective archer, Lee said, athletes must learn to clear their heads and focus. "If you are Christian," he said, "then people can have that kind of empty mind."
Asked if people of other faiths could learn to focus in the same way, Lee said he was not sure.
"Maybe," he said. "But for me this is the best answer. So that's why I'm encouraging people to be the same as me."
Huh? Christians make better archers? What's the breakdown? Do evangelicals do better than Catholics? Do members of United Church of Christ get 7s and 8s in archery while Episcopalians hit more 10s?
Maybe Lee should go see Bill Maher's documentary Religulous for penance: none of the US archers medaled at the games. On the other hand, Horton scored a terrific silver medal in the horizontal bar. And I'm sure one of the first thoughts running through his mind was, "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory."
I believe the role of faith in sports should be simply to help you win with humility and lose with grace. God does NOT care about sporting events and doesn't waste His time deciding who will win, who will lose, who will get a career-ending injury and who will use their defeat to come back four years later and stick a landing for the Lord.
So what do you think? When athletes point to the sky after winning an event and give all praise to God, are they just righteously giving the credit where credit is due? Or are they confusing personal glory and accomplishments with what really matters? Do you find it annoying or inspiring?