Ear to the Ground in London
01 June 1996

Kenneth Noble takes a look at former great Christian athletes as the Olympic Games will celebrate their 100th anniversary

How many Greek gods does it take to change a light bulb? Two, of course: one to hold the bulb and one to rotate the Earth. The ancient Greeks believed that the best way of honouring Zeus, father of the gods, was through disciplining mind and body. The Olympic Games sprang up as a religious, sporting and cultural festival in Zeus's honour. When the Persian general Mardonius defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480BC, he was surprised that most of the Greek army was absent. He was told that they were `celebrating the Olympic Games and watching gymnastics and horse contests'.

The ancient games were stopped, after a thousand years, in 394AD. The Roman emperor Theodosius included them in his ban of pagan festivals. Appropriately, the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896. The centennial Olympic games will begin on 19 July in Atlanta, Georgia, when sportspeople from most of the 197 countries with National Olympic Committees will compete for bronze, silver and gold medals. Many eyes will be on American sprinter Michael Johnson who looks as if he is leaning backwards as he surges round the track. He appears invincible in the 400m. Could he be the first man ever to take gold in both the 200m and 400m events? He told BBC television that the 200m was the more difficult. The way that he routinely leaves his 400m rivals trailing behind him suggests that he could be right.

The closest anyone has come to such a double-act was Eric Liddell, back in 1924, when he took gold in the 400m and bronze in the 200m. The British athlete who inspired the film Chariots of fire is today best known as the man who would never compete on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs. The year after his Olympic triumph, he went as a missionary to China, where he died of cancer at the age of 43 in a Japanese internment camp. In Sally Magnusson's biography of Liddell, The flying Scotsman, his sister Jenny recalls an occasion when someone asked him the secret of his success at 440 yards. `The first half I run as fast as I can, and the second half I run faster with God's help,' he replied. But he sometimes answered the question with a more prosaic, `The fact is, I don't like to be beaten.'

Britain's brightest current athlete, Jonathan Edwards, is also an outspoken Christian. But the first man to clear more than 18m (60ft) in the triple jump has reconsidered his decision not to compete on Sundays. The vicar's son was brought up to keep Sundays special, refusing even to train then. When he felt God was telling him to compete on a Sunday, it went so against his instincts that it felt like a leap of faith to obey. In an interview with Prophecy today Edwards quoted: `Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.' `To bring dishonour to God would break my heart,' said Edwards, `yet I know that if God has called me then this step will bring glory to his name.' A case of one great leap deserves another?

For those who fear that the Olympic spirit is dying, an anecdote from Manchester. Former world table tennis champion Jorgan Persson of Sweden was playing Britain's Matthew Syed in an Olympic qualifying tournament there. At a vital stage in the match the Swede told the umpire that he thought he had wrongly awarded him a point - although the umpire had missed it, Persson felt that Syed's ball had just nicked the table. Persson's sportsmanship almost certainly cost him the match. `I could not take the point if there was any doubt,' he explained. `I would have lost my head and not been able to play.' In the Seoul Olympics in 1988 Persson was awarded a gold medal for sportsmanship after losing a vital match in similar circumstances.

Despite his defeat by Syed, Persson has qualified for Atlanta. When he arrives in the stadium, Persson will see the message that appears on every Olympic scoreboard: `The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.'
by Kenneth Noble

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