Few people capture attention and win hearts as do athletes who excel in their sports despite adversities. One such athlete was a New Zealander who ran to victory at the 17th Olympic Games in Rome 30 years ago.
The runner, Murray Halberg, won the 5,000-meter race, finishing in 13 minutes, 43.4 seconds. While he did not run fast enough to set a record on the track, he set an example in other ways.One sports writer observed: "He did not look like a champion due to a withered arm which was a legacy of a school rugby injury, but, as often happens, he compensated with an indomitable spirit. Like so many other Olympic champions, he proved that physical handicaps can be overcome." (The Olympic Games 1980, published by Collier Books.)
The New Zealander won not only because he had trained but also because he went into the race with a winning philosophy.
"I am not concerned about records - only winning," he told reporters before he left for Rome. "So many men have lost races worrying about the time or opposition. In the Olympic Games you can never be sure who is the most dangerous rival; therefore, it is better to concentrate on your own performance."
The New Zealander almost didn't win. He started out well, pacing himself to save energy for the final crucial laps. At the 1,000-meter mark, he was last. By 2,000 meters, he was fifth. When only 800 meters remained, he pulled ahead with astonishing speed, moving 20 yards in front of his next closest competitor.
But then he seemed to tire. His neck bowed in fatigue; he no longer ran with head held high. The strong, muscular runner in second place began to close the gap.
The spectators stood and filled the stadium with a mighty roar. Some cheered for the competitor in second place. Others shouted, trying to warn the New Zealander he was about to lose the race. The shouts were heard. With strength summoned up from some reserve, he raced to the finish, eight yards ahead of the next runner.
Perhaps one reason we admire such athletes is that so few become Olympic competitors. As far as the Olympics and other such contests are concerned, we are spectators more than competitors.
But in everyday life, we are both.
As spectators in life, we watch the accomplishments and successes of those around us. Sometimes we applaud and cheer. Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we may have thoughts of jealousy, or envy stirs within us.
As competitors, we actively participate in what we sometimes call "the game of life." Some of us play fairly; some of us don't. Some measure success in terms of achieving what we need; others measure it in terms of achieving more than the person in the next office or next door.
But life is not a game, nor is it a race, which we may consider it to be in our fast-paced society. We're not here to see how fast we can get through life.
It seems that many of us do regard life as a great competition. We look over our shoulders constantly to see where others are. Too often we gauge our progress by some unseen but all-ruling clock, feeling we have succeeded or failed if we have or haven't reached certain milestones by certain ages. All too frequently, it seems we judge our success on our own track by how well others are running on theirs. We tend to maximize the advantages others have while we maximize our disadvantages or handicaps.
Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the New Zealand runner. Maybe we ought to not worry so much about what others are doing but concentrate on our own performance.
We don't need to cast envious or covetous eyes at others to see where they are and how much they have achieved. We have our own challenges: appetites and tempers to control, trials to endure and burdens to carry, to name a few.
We also have rewards to reap, blessings to enjoy and the gift of life itself. And we have crowds of spectators cheering for us on both sides of the veil.
Our real challenge is not to beat so-called competitors - to get better jobs with higher salaries, build bigger and better houses, drive better cars and dress in better clothes.
Our challenge is to reach our own finish line victoriously, knowing that walking humbly before God is a greater achievement than wearing any victor's crown or gold medal before thousands in some earth-bound arena.