Greatness is a sometimes over-used term, but when it comes to the Olympic Games, there are many candidates when trying to identify the best sportsperson of all time. If we eliminate non-Olympic sportsmen, such as Don Bradman, on the basis that few countries play his sport of cricket, plus horse racing and motor racing (in which the rider or driver can’t take full credit for their performances), or the Tour de France thought by many to be tainted by drugs, then the Games throw up a host of possibly ‘great’ sporting names. Not to say, of course, that the modern Olympics have always been clean either. But who might the greatest of all time be?
Does Carl Lewis count? His nine gold medals were won in various athletic events, yet some suspect him of using banned stimulants. How about the decades-earlier ‘Flying Finn’, Paavo Nurmi, who also racked up a lazy nine gold in a (hopefully) drug-free era. Then there’s Dawn Fraser and Krisztina Egerszegi who each won swimming gold in the same event at three successive games, or Steve Redgrave who amazingly won rowing gold in five successive Olympics. Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the one games in the pool, but Michael Phelps won eight and had fourteen in total before London 2012! Then there’s the impressive feat of Lars Hall the Swedish pentathlete whose ability across five very different disciplines saw him win at two successive games in addition to winning two world championships. Of course, Babe Didrikson added stunning success as an LPGA golfer to her two Olympic athletics gold medals. The list could go on.
However, there are a great many people who would query why any of this even matters. For some, greatness in sport is admirable or inspirational at best, yet they query whether it is worth the devotion of an entire life. From an eternal perspective, maybe the investment into people matters more,. but no-one can deny that top sportspeople hold positions of tremendous influence which can be used to advance many great causes, anyway.
In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, the apostle Paul encourages Christians to adopt the example of an athlete. He not only considers godliness superior to physical exercise, but says (in a way that is really only clear in the original ancient Greek text) that it should be pursued in the same way that a gymnast trains! I wonder how many prove by their actions that spiritual values are as important as they say with such early-to-bed-early-to-rise dedication. ‘Sold out for Jesus’? Maybe top athletes model only too well how greatness is to be achieved, whatever the accepted pathway.