Yesterday Barcelona celebrated 20 years since the city hosted the 1992 Olympic games. 25th July 1992 the torch lit the flame at the Mont Juic stadium, so yesterday they did a reenactment, for old time’s sake, I guess. Or maybe they just cannot bear London getting all the attention. A slow jog for a few miles with a replica torch around the Ramblas then a relighting of the old flame. Nice.
Tomorrow is London’s turn. The big day when the Olympic torch, apparently perforated with 8,000 little holes (sounds like an advert for a tea-bag!) to represent the 8,000 people that have carried it 8,000 miles round the United Kingdom, will finally light the flame at the Olympic stadium to mark the official opening of the games. “Official” opening – some have already started; the football is already underway, for example, so don’t miss Spain playing this afternoon. Drumroll and big fanfare music please.
Over the coming weeks, several thousand athletes will compete against themselves and with one another for a coveted place on the podium. Watching ninety kilos of pure muscle hurtle towards the finishing tape in the 100 metres or the Ethiopian and Kenyan marathon runners, heart and lungs on legs, doing 3 minute kilometres – 42 of them in a row – is one of those things in life that produces intense emotions in me. No idea why, but there we go.
I never much liked sport at school. I could run reasonably fast when small, but secondary school, where I was one of the youngest in my year and a late developer with it, was another story. The rugby players were twice my size, and I was never much good with a football; getting picked last in the playground team games doesn’t do much to encourage a healthy love of sport and I took refuge in chess as the “sport” which did more to build my self-image.
But after twenty years of little more sport than running up and down the stairs, over the last decade and a bit I have taken to running. When approaching forty, I realized that a sedentary life would take its toll and it was “now or never” to get some fitness into my body or gradually become an increasingly immobile and potentially unhealthy lump. My timid first attempts grew through discipline to gradually become habit, habit that in turn slowly transformed into desire, dependence even some onlookers might say.
I am not particularly fast – never have been, never will be. My aim in my first year running was to get to the place where I could run 10,000 metres in 40 minutes, averaging 4 minute kilometres (the maths was hard for that one…). I never did make it. My best ever time was just under 44 minutes, around my 41st birthday. Not bad, I guess, though not quite what I had hoped for.
A decade has passed since then and I had never checked how I could do at that distance until last week when I thought I would time myself again, just to see. I haven’t exactly been training for speed, but managed the 10kms in 46 minutes. I certainly won’t make the Olympic team, but if I can keep running 10kms at a time in minutes below my age in years, I won’t be disappointed.
I may not be disappointed, but I bet that more than one Olympic athlete will be. Heart-broken even. Years of training and then it’s over. In split seconds the hopes and dreams of a select few are realised, some leave enchanted to have simply been there and others achieve a personal best. But inevitably some end their Olympic experience in a crumpled blubbering heap at the side of the track, pit, mattress, ring, pool, stadium, pitch, arena…
There is something inherently “unfair” about competitive sports. You see, your best is never enough. Unless you happen to be “the one”, there is always someone better than you. Someone who runs that bit faster, jumps that bit higher, throws a lump of metal that bit further, and ends up on the podium instead of you. I know that is what it is about, a reward for comparative achievement. But it still seems unfair. You may just have the good fortune to stumble upon a year when by some quirk of nature no-one can run very fast and you win a gold medal for a time of 12 seconds in the 100 metres. But let’s face it, that is not very likely. I mean, just imagine happening to have reached your peak in cycling when Lance Armstrong was around. Not much fun.
Grace is different. We do not measure ourselves against anyone else; acceptance with God is not a competitive exercise where only the “best” get in. We look up to God, not across to one another, to know how we are doing, and the “Well done, good and faithful servant” is the same however many talents we were entrusted with or have earned.
In the same vein, we are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. All our heart, all our mind, all our soul, all our strength. No sideways glances, no comparison with another’s spirituality. The only measure is us, our own capacity. Give all you have, but never ask if this is more, or less, than anyone else. Your all is what is required, not someone else’s.
As I said, at school sport was not exactly top of my agenda. But when I was 16 I managed to break my leg skiing. Not fun, though it did give me more time for exam revision. Still on crutches and with my left leg in plaster, one day I decided to join in the athletics class. Clonk clonk thump swing, clonk clonk thump swing… No surprises, I came in last. If my memory serves me correctly, I managed the 100 metres in around 30 seconds – hardly Olympian, but my best. I did my best. My best. The athletics teacher cheered me in. So did some classmates. And inside, I smiled.