“One minute, elation, the next minute, despair. What happened?”
“Well, um, it was just, we, we didn’t change over in the right zone on the track. It’s really hard, when you’re going that speed, and I’m just focusing on Jess’s wheel, you know, it’s so easy, if Jess moves up just slightly, I just go…. Um, that’s what happened.
“We’ve had, we’ve never really had an illegal change before, so it’s not something we’ve really been too concerned about in the past, but it’s just one of those things that happened, you know. It’s not Jess’s fault, it’s not my fault, we’re both partly to blame, really….”
– Interview on the BBC (available to UK readers only)
Jess Varnish and Victoria Pendleton set a world record in February in the Women’s Team Sprint in track cycling. The Germans broke the record in July, but the Brits were easily one of the favourites for the gold medal. They won their qualifying heat by breaking the world record yet again, and though the Chinese broke that record in the very next heat, Pendleton and Varnish qualified second, as favourites for at least silver.
In the next round, the Brits easily won against the Ukraine. “Look at the leg speed of Pendleton. She’s storming around the track! This is Victoria Pendleton, back to her imperious best!” They again had the second fastest time behind the Chinese. The stage was set for a classic showdown in the final, China against Great Britain.
In the team sprint, the lead rider leads her partner for one lap, going as fast as she can, and then moves out and her teammate comes through and takes the second lap as fast as she can to the line. The second rider can’t overtake before the line. Now we go to the aftermath of the British race:
BBC Announcer 1: “Now, what’s happening here, Chris? This, uh, can we see? They’re looking at the window of change, are they, there?”
BBC Announcer 2: “Well, I actually was watching, uh, the uh British pair, and I was watching the changeover. Vicky Pendleton was coming through very fast. They are not allowed to overtake, of course, before the first rider has completed the lap. Well…. They are having a strong discussion in the centre there.”
BBC Announcer 1: “And there’s David Brailsford as well. I sincerely hope… they’re not going to DQ (disqualify) somebody.”
BBC Announcer 2: “Well, they’re trying to make it fair for everybody. The rules are the rules. The riders know where the points of change are.”
So Jess and Victoria were disqualified. No qualification for the final, no gold medal, no silver, nothing. “The rules are the rules.” The video shows clearly that Victoria’s wheel has passed Jess’s before they crossed the line.
Interviewer: “I can’t imagine how many times you have rehearsed for this moment, and the number of times you have… trained for this. For this to happen, I mean, how, how can, how can it be explained?”
Pendleton: “Um. It’s just one of those things, really. I think it’s just, it, now and again, rubbish things happen, and this is one of those days.”
“Rubbish things happen” — but “the rules are the rules.” “The riders know where the points of change are.”
In my last post in this series, we looked at a man who intentionally went out and broke the rules (He Wanted to Get Caught). He was trying to cheat, to gain an unfair advantage, and when he got caught, his chance to defend his Olympic gold medal was gone. Just like Pendleton and Varnish, no gold medal, no silver, nothing.
Unlike Schwazer, for Pendleton and Varnish there is no shame, no disgrace. They didn’t set out to cheat. But there’s still disappointment, a feeling of having let down each other, friends, family, and teammates — and no medal. They broke the rules, and when “they’re trying to make it fair for everybody,” you can’t break the rules.
Sometimes, in our Christian life, we may not set out to break the rules. We may not say, “I’m going to go out and sin today.” Sin sneaks up on us, and our old nature, with the old sinful desires is lurking. It’s supposed to be dead, but we don’t keep killing that old nature, keep rendering ourselves dead to sin, and so it gets a chance, and pounces. We could try to blame the devil, but our real problem is us.
We may not have planned to sin, but we didn’t plan not to. We’re careless about it. Like Victoria Pendleton said, “It’s not something we’ve been too concerned about.” We haven’t safeguarded ourselves. We’ve forgotten the verse which says, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12), and we’ve not taken heed.
If cyclists are concerned about changeovers, they practice and practice, and practice some more, until they know they’ll get it right. They are so alert to the danger of disqualification that they make absolutely certain. They leave some margin for error, enough to be sure they aren’t disqualified.
We need that attitude toward sin — alert to the danger, leaving a margin for safety, recognising the danger and the consequences, so that we’ll never have to say, “It’s not something I’ve been too concerned about.”
And so, we come to the same verse we looked at in the last post, because the sin that comes through carelessness, through neglect, through not taking heed, still can destroy your ability to run the race God has for you. It’s not only the sin that we plan to do that besets us. Our problem is that sin “easily” besets us. We don’t have to work at sin to do it, we have to work at not sinning to not do it. Sinning is the easy thing — just be careless about it, and before long, you’ll find yourself disqualified.
1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Laying aside the sin that easily besets us requires us to be careful, to recognise the hideous danger of lurking sin, and the fact that victory over sin has to be won every day, moment by moment. It’s never “done and dusted” — sin is always there.
I Corinthians 10:12
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
The Brits should have been in the final, but they didn’t make it. It was China (with world records in both early rounds) against Germany. In the final, China blew the Germans away — but the Chinese were relegated for the same infraction the Brits had committed. Germany won gold. Both Great Britain and China completed all of their races in a faster time than the German gold-winning time — but Germany didn’t break the rules.
A champion has to train hard, put in the effort, prepare mentally, go very fast, do what is needed day in and day out, learn to excel even under pressure. A champion also has to be sure to follow the rules. It’s something we should “be concerned about” as we run with patience the race that is set before us.