The colossal statue of Christ the Redeemer towers high above the city and harbour of Rio de Janeiro. It’s one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, with the figure’s massive soapstone arms flung wide in a universal gesture of welcome and peace. Seen through Christian eyes, the majestic monument conveys something of Jesus’ present reign over the affairs of the world, and of His future restoration of shalom to the redeemed creation.

Far below, in the late summer of 2016, the city of Rio hosted the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. Although often marred by politics and commercialism, the Olympics at their best offer glimpses of that shalom, of the harmony and conviviality to be unveiled in the new heaven and the new earth.

With that in mind, here are five stories drawn from the Rio Games – to match the number of rings in the Olympic symbol – each one telling of things much better than medals of gold, silver or bronze.

Christian divers reveal true identity

David Boudia and Steele Johnson won a silver medal for the United States in synchronized diving. Both men are devout Christians who define themselves in terms of their relationship with Christ rather than their status as Olympic athletes. In fact, they believe the level of their focus and the quality of their performance is vitally connected to their faith.

In an interview on national TV following their victory, Boudia explained: “It’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this [diving], and I’m thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy. But we both know that our identity is in Christ, and we’re thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil and in front of the United States. It’s been an absolutely thrilling moment for us.”

Johnson agreed: “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 . . . and it let me enjoy the contest.”

It’s not uncommon for sports figures to point to the sky or mutter a quick thank you to God when they win. But it’s far rarer – and more welcome – to see athletes who recognize the sovereignty of Christ over their whole lives, not least over the results of their competitions.

The selfie that transcended borders

Lee Eun-ju and Hong Un-jong are Korean gymnasts, Lee representing South Korea and Hong competing for North Korea. Their two countries have technically been at war for decades, although they currently share a rather frigid armistice, as well as the world’s most heavily fortified border.

None of that stopped the two young women, in a casual moment during practice, from sharing a selfie that became one of the defining images of the Rio Games.

The photo captured the essence of the Olympic movement: to overcome political hostilities and unite the world through sport. On a human level, that may sound like a utopian fantasy. But from an eternal perspective, we have a sure hope of a God who is renewing all things and reconciling people from all nations to Himself and to each other. A friendly selfie between two smiling girls whose countries are bitter rivals offers perhaps a small foretaste of that hope.

A gymnast with the best day job

Houry Gebeshian is an American woman of Armenian heritage who competes for Armenia in gymnastics. In her late twenties, she’s about a decade past her prime in a sport dominated by teenagers. But she also faces a second roadblock to her progress as an athlete. Her opportunities to train are severely limited by the demands of her day job – or more accurately, her night job.

Gebeshian works as a physician’s assistant on the labour and delivery floor of a Cleveland hospital. She does 16-hour night shifts and 24-hour weekend shifts delivering babies, and then hits the gym to train whenever she can. Her athletic career is entirely self-funded and self-coached.

As it turned out, Gebeshian didn’t reach the podium in Rio. Nevertheless, her mature approach to pursuing her dreams – to say nothing of the life-giving work she’s chosen as her main calling – surely make her efforts shine much brighter than any medal.

Refugee Olympic athletes

Yusra Mardini had a budding career as a swimmer for her native Syria. But then the civil war broke out, her home was destroyed, and she fled with two dozen others in a cramped dinghy across the Mediterranean Sea. When their boat began to fill with water, Mardini, her sister Sarah and two others – the only ones who could swim – pushed and dragged the dinghy for three hours until they reached land.

Mardini was the most recognizable member of the Refugee Olympic Team, the first such group in the history of the Games. The team consisted of ten athletes originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each of them had escaped an untenable life of abuse, violence, political anarchy or enforced servitude in their respective homelands.

None of them won any medals in Rio. But the fact that they were welcomed and allowed to compete spoke volumes about the Olympic spirit at its best. Much more than that, for those with eyes to see, it was a poignant reminder of God’s tender heart toward orphans, widows and strangers far from home.

Canada’s golden Penny

Penny Oleksiak won four swimming medals for Canada (a gold, a silver and two bronze) making her one of the most successful Canadian Olympic athletes ever – at just 16 years old. Of course, most of Canada has come to know all that by now. During the course of the Rio Games she became the face of Canada’s Olympic team, chosen in the end for the honour of carrying the flag at the closing ceremonies.

More remarkable than her prowess in the pool was the way she carried herself before and after her competitions. There was no strutting, no attitude, just a charmingly innocent teenager, thrilled and surprised at her own achievements. The look of incredulous joy on her face as she gulped and splashed about after her gold medal win has become one of the most enduring images of the Rio Olympics.

Amidst the ego and posturing that too often marks elite athletes, Penny Oleksiak is more than just the proverbial breath of fresh air. She’s a wonderful role model for kids who look up to her and follow her into sports. Truth be told, she’s a pretty good role model for their parents, coaches and anyone else involved with athletics, as well.

Closing thoughts

As with all Olympics, the Rio Games had their share of bad stories intermingled with the good. There were the usual accounts of corruption, cheating, poor sportsmanship and reports of crime in the city. But along with these came moments of triumph, joy, camaraderie and acts of human kindness.

The worst stories are painful reminders that we’re fallen creatures living in a fallen world. But like the statue of Christ the Redeemer standing watch over Rio, the best stories whisper in their own small way that Jesus is sovereign over the city, the games and the world, and that He is making all things new.

If for no other reason, such stories deserve to be remembered – and celebrated.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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