The 2021 Olympics is an unprecedented one, after last year’s scheduled Olympics were cancelled because of the pandemic. Also, this past week, for the first time since 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) amended its motto from “Citius, Altius, Fortius”—”Faster, Higher, Stronger”—to “Citius, Altius, Fortius—Communis,” adding the word “Together” to express the global unity needed in these pandemic times.
A Biblical Motto and Creed
Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, also known as Pierre de Coubertin, was the founder of the modern Olympic games in 1894 who adopted the original Olympic motto. He proposed it as the official motto, having heard it from his friend Henri Didon, who was a Dominican priest and sports enthusiast.
On March 7, 1891, Didon spoke to members of a sports association, encouraging athletes to be “faster, higher, stronger,” relaying the encouragement of focusing on self-improvement and discipline, rather than winning the prize. When de Coubertin heard this, he said, “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible,” and adopted it to be the motto for the Olympics.
Years later, on July 19, 1908 in London, the year of the Olympics, as well as the year a conference of Anglican priests gathered from all over the world, Pierre listened to a sermon by Ethelbert Talbot, the Bishop of Pennsylvania, preaching to Anglican priests, athletes, and officials in the room, trying to resolve conflict between varying countries. In his sermon, Talbot said,
“We have just been contemplating the great Olympic Games. What does it mean?… it is very true, as he says, that each athlete strives not only for the sake of sport, but for the sake of his country. Thus a new rivalry is invented. If England be beaten on the river, or America outdistanced on the racing path, or that American has lost the strength which she once possessed. Well, what of it? The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia — that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St. Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize, Our prize is not corruptible, but incorruptible, and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest. All encouragement, therefore, be given to the exhilarating — I might also say soul-saving — interest that comes in active and fair and clean athletic sports.”
De Coubertin paraphrased Talbot in a speech the following Friday, saying, “The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part,” resulting in today’s official Olympic creed, also written by de Coubertin:
“The most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
Clearly, Talbot was preaching on 1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown.”
Not the Triumph, But the Fight
As we think about the Olympics, if we see sports competitions only to watch who are winners and losers, just waiting for the medal ceremony, we have lost the significance of what the Olympics was meant to stand for. Part of the joy of watching sports is watching the skill, the strength, the endurance of these athletes, their perseverance, their discipline, their ethics. It’s more than just about the winning and losing; it’s more than just about the gold, silver, or bronze.
As we relate this to our own lives, we can see better the beauty of the struggle. Though our lives are filled with challenges, they are not in vain. They build fruit and character and Christlikeness. We do not run to win the prize; we run in such a way to win the prize. The emphasis is on how we run, not winning the prize.
Though the Olympics reminds us of the struggle, it also reminds us that we never struggle alone. At the Olympics, we see humanity in almost every culture, tribe, and nation. We see them all calloused, sweating, tired, exerting strength and energy. We are reminded that though we are different, we are the same. We sweat the same perspiration and we bleed the same blood.
It is a God-ordained moment that the IOC added the word “Together” to its motto. In our current times, we, especially the church, are reminded that we are “faster, higher, stronger” when we run the race together, with each other, and with Christ by our side. We are reminded that the church was meant to run together all along, and this life was not about getting to the end fastest or about having the most correct theology on all topics or who has the most members. It’s about running and struggling together. With our eyes on the imperishable crown. With our eyes on Christ, Himself. Have we run the race well? Have we fought the good fight?
We’ve had a polarizing, unprecedented couple of years. How have we behaved through it? How were our words and thoughts towards our fellow men and women? How have we contended for the gospel? How have we been a support to others? The fight is not finished. The race is not over.
As we go into our churches and between churches, let’s remember that though the Olympians pledge an oath, “for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams,” as believers we have given our lives for the glory and honor of Christ alone in this race we all are running.