Sure, the Olympics always has its negatives. This year, Russia was denied official representation due to a massive doping scandal involving over 1,000 athletes. Instead, Russians competed as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the five-ring Olympic flag; yet two of them tested positive for banned substances. As the Olympic theme song played during the men’s hockey medal ceremony, the gold medal-winning “Olympic Athletes from Russia” team defiantly sang the Russian national anthem. Meanwhile, the American mainstream media fawned over the North Korean dictator’s sister. “Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, captured hearts during the Winter Olympics opening ceremony,” one Newsweek journalist wrote. “She was dubbed North Korea’s Ivanka [Trump], stealing the spotlight from stern U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who was under direct orders to shun the North’s propaganda campaign.”
Never mind that, like Russia, North Korea was allowed to participate in the Olympics despite numerous crimes against humanity: an estimated 200,000 North Koreans live in prison camps, a third of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, and the murderous regime constantly conducts nuclear tests and threatens to wipe out America, among other outrages.
But the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was also a 17-day display of some of the greatest athletic achievements and the most inspiring medal-winning moments in history. Three of those “golden moments” are stories of redemption and resilience that are deeply inspiring.
Overcoming is a central part of the Christian life. Our “gold medal” is eternal life in God’s Family. That means becoming perfect like God the Father (Matthew 5:48). That is hard! Humans are naturally hostile toward our Creator (Romans 8:7).
These three Olympic champions exhibited outstanding capacity for overcoming—physically and mentally. God’s young people would benefit from following these examples and also applying them on a spiritual level to develop godly character.
Shaun White is a snowboarding legend. Alongside a pile of X Games medals, he had won two Olympic gold medals prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics as a representative of America. He is by far the most famous, accomplished snowboarder ever.
But at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, he stunned the world by finishing a horribly disappointing fourth place in the men’s half-pipe event. Compared to previous accomplishments, this result was widely viewed as a complete disaster and a devastating collapse.
Adding to the adversity to overcome in South Korea, White suffered a brutal crash while attempting a double cork 1440 trick last October during training in New Zealand. His board slipped as it landed, causing him to hit his face directly on the lip of the half-pipe. The bloody cuts on his forehead and nose required 62 stitches.
The U.S. women’s hockey team won gold in the first-ever women’s Olympic hockey tournament in 1998. The team they beat, Canada, went on to win the next four Olympic golds—three of them against the U.S. in the championship game. The U.S. defeat in 2014 was particularly demoralizing. Leading 2-0 with less than four minutes in regulation, the U.S. gave up two goals and finally the heartbreaker in overtime.
To make matters worse, the U.S. lost to Canada again, 2-1, during the group stage of the 2018 tournament—despite outshooting Canada, 45-23.
The U.S. men’s curling team had been considered a disgrace since taking the bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The team finished dead last in 2010 and second last in 2014. In the 2018 tournament, the U.S. men started out with a record of 2 wins and 4 losses.
No matter how you look at it, Shaun White, the U.S. women’s hockey team, and the U.S. men’s curling team at this point in their respective stories were all total failures. We can all relate to the various methods of failure on display here: White was an underachiever, the U.S. women repeatedly came up short against a formidable foe, and the U.S. men struggled against their own incompetence and weakness.
But the stories of these Olympic heroes didn’t end there. We all face failure, but it’s how we respond that makes all the difference. As Proverbs 24:16 says, “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief.”
All three of our American heroes used past failures as motivation to succeed at the 2018 Winter Olympics. They refused to quit. They got up every time they fell—sometimes literally.
White set a men’s half-pipe Olympic record with a final run of 97.75 out of a possible 100, seizing gold with five tricks so spectacular that I jumped off the couch, holding my head and screaming as it happened.
The U.S. women’s hockey team faced Canada once again in the gold medal game this year. Tied 2-2 just like in 2014, the two teams played a 20-minute overtime and then a five-round shootout before American Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson scored the sudden-death winner in round six.
cbs Sports Radio’s Jim Rome described the winning goal this way: “JLD had a plan. And she had dekes and dangles for days. So dirty. So filthy. And so awesome. You will never see a better goal in a bigger moment. Ever. Sheer perfection.”
Here’s how npr recapped the U.S. men’s curling triumph: “[I]t’s not just that Team U.S.A. won. It’s how the team won that has motivated so many people in Duluth [Minnesota] and beyond.
“After poor showings in the last two Olympics, skip John Shuster’s last name became a verb …. The ignominious definition: failing to meet expectations.
“Shuster was cut by U.S.A. Curling. But he stuck with it, formed his own team, and qualified for the Olympics again.
“After a slow start in South Korea, the team improbably strung together five consecutive victories, including two over powerhouse Canada.
“Shuster said this team was different.”
It sure was! “This team” took down Canada, winner of the last three Olympic golds, before upsetting Sweden in the final.
In an April 2005 Philadelphia News article titled “Failing Forward,” Evangelist Alex Harrison wrote: “Failing forward is learning from our mistakes. Failing backward is never growing; in fact, you are held hostage to your failings. We should be asking ourselves, Am I making progress toward our common spiritual goal: the Kingdom of God?”
Later in the article, Mr. Harrison asked a string of questions, including:
1. Have you grown in at least one area in the past year? For example, overcoming procrastination or poor time management, or building resourcefulness?
2. Are you developing more patience with problems and people than you had last year? Are you more understanding?
3. Do you understand your strengths and weaknesses better than you did last year? Are you conquering your human nature?
4. Are you more approachable now? Are you open to constructive criticism? Are you ready to admit when you are wrong? Are you more willing to make changes in your life than you have been in the past?
Notice how each of these questions involves comparing our growth during Passover season last year with our growth this year. These Olympians could have quit because of past failures. Instead, they used those failures as motivation to excel and succeed at the 2018 Olympics.
We can do the same in our spiritual journey, whether we failed last year or simply could have done better (we all could have done better). Those athletes competed for a physical gold medal, but we are competing for a spiritual, incorruptible crown (1 Corinthians 9:25). And, unlike those athletes, God is actively helping us build His righteousness in our lives—if we let Him.
Let’s remember the examples of these triumphant American Olympians. Let’s overcome adversity and experience the glorious victory of our own “golden moments.”