“And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving.
And if they shout
Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing…
Hold your head up, oh
Hold your head up, oh
Hold your head high.” (1972) “Hold Your Head Up” Recorded By: Argent Composers: C. White/R. Argent
I admit it. I am an Olympic junkie. I sat on the couch for two weeks, glued to the Tokyo events. I found myself cheering while taking-in certain sports I normally would pass on, like wall climbing. After a few days, I realized I hadn’t even taken a shower. Yeah, sad, I know.
The human spirit in these games was so evident, even in a pandemic. For the most part, no crowds where allowed to cheer the athletes onward toward the goal. Unless a relative was a coach, no parents, wives, husbands, children, significant others were on the grounds. So, in a way, the competitors found the struggle a bit more challenging without the love felt and heard around them.
The human interest stories attached to some Olympians were in abundance. I would list the notables, but the list is way too long. If you weren’t able to watch, trust me, there were plenty of tear-jerking side stories shared.
These games were a bit different for me personally. The daughter of an old friend of mine made the Olympics this year. Melissa Gonzalez is a 27 year old world track contender in the women’s 400 meter hurdles. She has dual citizenship and was able to represent her dad’s country of Colombia. (Her mom, my old friend, was raised in my area.)
Melissa grew-up here in my neck of the woods and attended University of Texas in Austin, Tx. She was a track star there, but her speed times were shy of Olympian competition requirements. She work every day for years on end to better her times. She prayed about the decision to tryout for the Tokyo games, made the choice, and qualified. She threw-off the personal disappointment, in her less than luster times at UT, and grew wings on her shoes for Tokyo. Melissa had broken her own Colombian record for the 400 meter hurdles, and in the qualifying heat in Tokyo surpassed her national record for a personal best. A few days later, in the semi-finals, she had to run in the rain against a world record holder, and the up-coming gold medalist.
Although Melissa fell short of winning a medal, coming in the 6th place slot, she remains in the top 24 for women’s 400 meter hurdles in the world. Because of the joy she possesses from her deep faith, she held her head up and displayed God’s love wherever she went. She vows to go to Paris for the next Olympics in 2024. You go, girl!
Scores of friends and family met her at the airport when she came home. There were lots of tears shed as they cheered for a job well done. Really, a life well-lived. I’m very proud of her.
Although I was distracted, as my focus was on Melissa’s efforts and stats in Tokyo, I was literally shaken by another amazing, stunning occurrence in the women’s 1,500 meter qualifying heat. Did you see it?
Ethiopian-born Dutch distance runner, Sifan Hassan, 28 years old, would be unheard-of for the casual sports fan. If you are a fan of world track competitions, than you may recognize her as a two-time gold medalist in both the 1,500 meter, and the 10,000 meter events from the 2019 World Championships.
Sifan was flying out of her shoes as she was entering the final lap in the 1,500, when all went wrong. A runner from Kenya was in front of her, tripped and hit the track on her belly, tripping Sifan in the process, hitting the pavement as well.
Photo: Matthias Hangst – Sifan Hassa in orange top.
Seemingly out of the race, Sifan looked up, watching the world contenders quickly leaving her behind. There were eleven of them, the fastest runners in the world, were now between her and the finish-line.
Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez – Sifan Hassan
To everyone’s shock, Sifan looked down in defeat and then looked up again with another expression on her face. The track star then stood up, and turned on the fuel from behind the running crowd. With nothing short of astonishing inward fortitude, Sifan poured on the speed. At this point, I thought, “Wow. Nice second effort, but she’s done.”
The lady from the Netherlands swept passed each and every contender in high gear. I couldn’t help but stand to my feet in my living-room as I watched the focus in her eyes burning like the Olympic torch itself.
As she was gradually making up lost ground, on the final straightaway, she pushed herself passed the front pack of five finalists to outrun them all as she crossed the finish-line in first place.
Later in the week, Sifan Hassan made it through the semifinals. On the day of the final heat for the medals in the 1,500 meters, she won the bronze for the Netherlands.
If you’re not familiar with the Bible, the Apostle Paul was a sports fan, from what he wrote. In his writings he uses some Olympic events to help us understand how spiritual faith works, and how it works itself out into action. It’s as if he saw the women’s 1,500 meter with Sifan, and the 400 meter hurdles with Melissa, and wrote the following…
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” – I Corinthians 9:24 (NIV)
Whenever the winners were given a screen to see their family and friends cheering them on back home, it made most athletes smile, laugh, and cry. When Melissa exited the gate from the baggage claim back in Dallas, when she saw the cheering, weeping crowds with their signs and balloons welcoming her home from an effort well-done, there was joy in her eyes. And so this encouragement was written for us…
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
Since the days have passed by, I think a lot about Melissa and Sifan. Mostly, I try to get inside their heads when that moment of decision was made. For Melissa, it was holding her head up above the clouds of self-pity as she felt “less-than” from her college track times. She very well could have simmered in the frying pan of loss, holding her away from world competition. For Sifan, there must have been an instant of overwhelming defeat as she tripped over the Kenyan watching the surface of the track come closer and closer to her face. She was faced with walking off the track while calling it a day. But, somehow, someway, she stood to her feet, endured the pain, and found a gear she probably didn’t know she had at the moment.
How about when you have fallen? Do you recall? Do you remember the scrape to the knees as you hit the concrete of life? The losses, the failures, the defeat can be life altering, or even ending for some. I know this all too well. All things CAN BE endured.
Spiritually speaking, we all have fallen short of the target. The goal in our relationship with our Creator is too far away for our arrows to reach. It’s like an attempt at the long jump over the Grand Canyon. You just can’t achieve it. At the same time, God made a way to bridge the great gap we cannot negotiate. Jesus came here to run the perfect race for us, to carry us across the finish-line Himself, for Himself. Otherwise, because of sin in life, which we all are owners, we would be left on the track without a chance to crossover to where we need to be at the end of our heat.
We are born with our backsides on the surface of the track. But we don’t have to stay there.
A race well-done can only be had by grace, through faith, and easily found in fuel for the race.
“Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. So they do it to obtain a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way as not to run aimlessly; I box in such a way, as to avoid hitting air; but I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” – Paul – I Corinthians 9:25-27 (NAS)