What’s Up With all the Olympic Athletes Thanking God?

When interviewed immediately after completing an Olympic event, athletes usually don’t say something profound. They heavy breathe a lot (understandable) and make broad statements about doing your best before thanking their competitors. In Rio, quite a few have also taken time—either right after their event, or on social media and in later interviews—to give God a shout out. You can find an exhaustive list of the religious ties of athletes here. I’ve compiled a few of the highlights below.

David Boudia, USA

Won: Silver in Men’s Synchronized 10m platform

“When my mind is on this and thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy,” Boudia, who wrote about his faith in his book Greater Than Gold, said. “But we both know our identity is in Christ.”

Steele Johnson, USA

Won: Silver in Men’s Synchronized 10m platform

“The way David just described it was flawless – the fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace.”

Wayde van Nierkerk, South Africa

Won: Gold in 400m sprint

“The only thing I can do now is to give God praise,” van Nierkerk told BBC after the race. “I went on my knees each and every day and I told the Lord to take care of me and look after me every step. I asked the Lord to carry me through the race and I am really just blessed for this opportunity.”

Brianna Rollins, USA

Won: Gold in 100m hurdles

“I can’t honestly remember the race, really,” Rollins said. “I do know that I hit quite a few hurdles, but I didn’t let that mess up my composure. I was able to continue to stay focused and make sure I got across that line, make sure I saw my name on top of that board. I’m so glad that God was able to guide me through that race. I couldn’t be more happy.”

Simone Manuel, USA

Won: Gold in 100m freestyle

“All I can say is all glory to God,” Manuel said. “It’s definitely been a long journey these past four years. I’m just so blessed to have a gold medal.”

The entire Fiji rugby team prayed after winning their gold medal match and Michelle Carter Instagrammed a “thank you Jesus” message after winning gold in shot put.

Similar displays at the 2012 Olympics in London left a lot of people scratching their heads and questioning the motivation for these public displays of religious devotion. Here are some of the more popular theories:

  1. Faith is a central part of the life of these athletes, so it’s natural that their first reaction is to acknowledge God
  2. Most religions emphasize evangelism and some may view the Olympics as their best chance to spread their faith. This definitely seems to be the case for divers Boudia and Johnson who literally used their platform to talk about Jesus (I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to come up with that pun)
  3. Giving credit to a being other than themselves is a way of celebrating their success without putting down the people who lost

None of these reasons deal with the theological problem presented by these statements.

In 2010, CNN questioned if God cared about the outcome of sports. What they were really asking is a variant of one of the biggest spiritual questions human beings have ever faced: if God is good, why do bad things happen? Caring about sports seems like a terrible waste of divine resources when there are so many horrible things happening in the world.

“Athletes who publicly thank God for victory are often calling more attention to themselves than their faith,” William J. Baker, the author of Playing with God says in the article. “They are selling their goodness, and their brand of faith, to a captive audience. It’s an athlete using a moment to sell a product, like soap.”

Baker sees this as a bad thing, but as noted above, for people trying to spread their faith, using their bran to sell God is the whole point.

Perhaps the most cynical perspective on commentary from athletes comes from the writer David Foster Wallace in his book Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. He argues the discipline needed to reach the highest levels of athletic excellence requires intellectual numbness.

“We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think… the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to life in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.”

Hypothetical childlike worlds aside, it’s not an athlete’s job to be eloquent or intelligent, it’s their job to win., and it’s possible religion could help them do just that. Kimberly Winston, writing for Religion News Service, questioned whether religion gives athletes a leg up on the competition, and while the data is inconclusive, there may be a psychological benefit to faith.

“Faith is not a substitute for hard work, perseverance or talent,” said  Joel Fish,  director of Philadelphia’s Center for Sport Psychology, in Winston’s piece. “But when those bases are covered, I believe faith, for certain athletes, can be a source of comfort, of motivation, of consistency.”

Boxer Edward Latimore III believes the real reason athletes thank God is to demonstrate humility.

“I guess when you can do things that make you look God-like, the only way to remain grounded is to say that it’s God’s fault,” he wrote in a post on his website.

Michael Medved, a radio host and author, sees this attempt at humility in a positive light.

“If a champion wins an Olympic medal, an Oscar, a Super Bowl, or even a significant political campaign, and celebrates the triumph with invocation of the Almighty’s reign, that victor doesn’t claim supernatural favor but rather recognizes mortal limits to his own power,” he wrote in a piece for The Huffington Post.

Most people have probably wrestled with this question at some point. Why me? Hard work and circumstances are not enough to explain why some people succeed while others suffer. There’s an element of fate, luck, blessing that we cannot quantify or articulate.

I wrote last week about the miniscule difference between athletes at the highest levels of competition. Maybe in some way, acknowledging the role of God—a being beyond human control—is the athlete’s way of acknowledging this absurdly small differentiation.

Perhaps what these athletes are really doing when they thank God is shrugging off the heavy questions that accompany victory and attempting to make the weight of those medals a little easier to bear.

 

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