IN MY FIVE YEARS of serious training for the 2002 Winter Olympics, I never envisioned myself standing on the sidelines of the Games—let alone being happy about it.
But as much as I cherished my athletic goals during this time, I was also discovering that the most satisfying kind of victory was to get a deeper understanding of everyone's God-given ability to overcome physical limitation. And for me, the spirit of the Games became much broader than the Olympic motto Swifter, Higher, Stronger. It became a daily commitment to discovering more of the divine power and the freedom that power gives each of us—which was why I was thrilled to be in Utah, even as a spectator.
The crisp, sunny morning of the women's cross-country skiing 10 km pursuit race found me wedged in a deafening crowd lining the homestretch. Beckie Scott, a Canadian who up until the previous year hadn't been considered good enough to even warrant a "Good morning" from her fellow World Cup skiers, was battling for the bronze medal! Yelling who-knows-what at the top of our lungs, thousands of us fans urged her on to a photo-finish capture of the first-ever cross-country skiing medal for a North American woman.
When the scoreboard's pixels lighted up to spell her name next to the number 3, my eyes swelled up with tears. Though the sweat, sheer determination, and intense focus were all hers, I shared heartily in her triumph, if mainly in spirit. All through the head-to-head race, and up those grueling trails I knew too well, she'd hung tough. And even though in the 1998 Nagano Games her best result had been 45th, she hadn't let that dissuade her from pursuing her ambitious goals.
And here she was, four years later, jumping around on the podium like an ecstatic first-grader, a bouquet cradled in one arm and a smile bursting from her face.*
As the television networks faithfully remind us every four years through triumphal strains of music, this is what makes the Games special. It's the ability to supersede what's been accomplished before; the beauty of excellence in motion; the courage of ski jumpers flying through the air and downhill racers pushing 80 mph on chattering skis; the mental fortitude and grace displayed in moments of disappointment as well as in glory.
For me, the Olympic spirit—vitally alive in the minutiae of everyday life and magnified on the world stage—is the essence of the Games. Ultimately, the Olympics aren't about who can build the strongest, most elastic, most spring-like human form through heredity, grueling exercise, countless nutritional supplements and recovery drinks—and, sometimes, illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
No, the substance—and the glory of the Games—is in the defeat of limits outlined by physiology and psychology. In other words, the surrender of material power to spiritual power. It's in the acknowledgment that divine Spirit overrides every limitation that threatens to impose itself on us. These might include apathy, sorrow, fear, doubt, feelings of inadequacy, or any other of the misconceptions about who God has made us to be.
Having spent a fair amount of time around top-level athletes and coaches, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to keep the true reward—bestowed on us by the supremacy of Spirit, God—at the forefront of thought. Your coaches are constantly telling you to listen to your body to see how it's feeling. They're pricking you with needles for blood tests, monitoring your heart rate, and otherwise evaluating your physical condition.
In this zoomed-in view, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of sports was to worship the body and respect its limits. But that, to my mind, is the exact opposite of what this amazing laboratory offers—the opportunity to discover the ability of spirit to triumph over physical limitation.
So as I watch the Olympics this year, an ocean removed this time, my heart is going to be with those athletes, urging them on in a different way—hoping they discover even just a little of their God-given dominion. And I know for certain they will help remind me of my own dominion.
If I can catch just a glimpse of that real Olympic glory—the raw, unchoreographed, self-forgetting kind—that will be enough to make my heart soar. And, yeah, I might need a Kleenex or two.
*The two women who beat Beckie Scott in the pursuit were later stripped of their medals for using an illegal drug. And, yes, Beckie did end up getting the gold—more than two years later.
The Winter Olympics are being held in Turin, Italy, from February 12 to 26.