Rio de Janiero is, quite literally, a city watched over by God. The remarkable monument of Christ the Redeemer, completed in 1931 and renovated in 2010, looks over the rich and poor, Rio’s infamous festivals and parties, and, this summer, the Olympic Games.
All of my life, I’ve loved the Olympics. I have wonderful memories of watching. I still remember my father, who lived in Romania before emigrating to the United States, telling me someday he’d show me the country where Nadia Commanichi grew up. Watching Mary Lou Retton score a perfect 10 with my childhood best friend. The Miracle on Ice. Greg Louganis, Flo-Jo, Carl Lewis, Tommy Moe, Shaun White.
More recently, I’d lost, my enthusiasm for the Games. Watching pros decimate small countries in basketball wasn’t my thing. I was sick of doping scandals, host country bashing, trash talking, and whining. Considering the media beating Rio took before the Games even opened, I was very uninterested in this year’s Olympics. I knew we would be watching in some form, but I wasn’t really paying attention.
But then something happened that hasn’t happened in a long time, if it ever really had. God came down off that mountain in Brazil, and became part of the Games. Like I did as a child, my girls, and countless young people around the world, we’re watching. And the very heroes of the hour – the BIG names – started thanking God, talking about their faith, and, in the way only they can, began inspiring people to trust in the Lord.
The first story I saw on this was about gymnast Simone Biles finding time to attend Mass in Rio amid an absolutely crazy schedule of practice, competition, interviews and events. I was impressed – I know I myself haven’t always been as diligent on my travels. Initially I chalked it up to her mother. But by the second week, Biles had me chuckling with delight. When Bob Costas asked her after winning her fifth gold medal what she was going to do in Rio with gymnastics competition wrapped up, she enthusiastically told him she was going to eat junk food and visit Christ the Redeemer. Like a true American journalist, Costas couldn’t shut her up fast enough about her religion. He was outmatched.
Michael Phelps himself spent a lot of time talking in his interviews about how he found God in the midst of severe depression, which allowed him to return to the Olympics once again and add even more medals to his incredible collection. Watching him kiss his infant child poolside after one race was an incredible moment. I often thought of him before as a swimming machine – someone with a singular purpose in life. I wasn’t even sure I liked him – he didn’t even seem to have a personality. Amazing in his greatest success, he has become an evangelist to the extent of God’s love for His people.
And who could forget Simone Manuel’s surprise at winning her first Olympic gold, and exclaiming “God is great!” Katie Ledecky looking back over the pool for her competitors. Or African track and field runners carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary? Or decorated beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings proclaiming she was born to play volleyball and have babies? Then there were American synchronized diving silver medalists David Boudia and Steele Johnson declaring their Christian identity, and Usain Bolt carrying his Miraculous Medal. Add in Gabby Douglas traveling with her Bible, her teammate Lori Hernandez, gold medal swimmer Maya DiRado and track and field superstars Allyson Felix and English Gardner (my favorite name of the Games this year!) and children everywhere must be learning about and witnessing the power of faith.
When has that happened recently in such a high profile venue, with so many human role models putting their clout behind God? I can’t recall a time in my life.
Granted the entire Rio games have not been about goodness and the power of God. When athletes stunt their own dreams so they do not have to compete against a person from an “enemy country” or trash players on another team because that team unexpectedly upset their chances at a medal, the world still has a long way to go.
But when truly famous people who will spend a good deal of their time in the near future entertaining proposals to sponsor products and services, are not afraid to speak their minds and hearts about their personal faith in God, something is going right in the world. Even if Bob Costas would rather talk French fries and Zac Efron.
Thank you Simone, Michael, Simone, Kerri, Allyson, Usain, David, Steele, Gabby, Maya and so many other incredible athletes for inspiring children not only to excel physically, but spiritually. You are all truly Golden. God bless.