The men’s 400 metres held some interesting stories as the London Olympics began. Making the race intriguing were Lashawn Merritt, the defending champion but fighting injury; Oscar Pistorius (the “Blade Runner”), the first double leg amputee to compete in the Olympics; and the young guns, 18-year-old Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, and most of all 19-year-old Kirani James of Grenada, who last year became the youngest world champion ever in the event.
The Americans have dominated the event, taking all the medals in the last two Olympics, and in the last seven Olympics taking seven gold, five silver, and four bronze medals. This year looked to be different. Jeremy Wariner, the third fastest in history, winner in 2004 and second in 2008, didn’t even qualify. And Lashawn Merritt, the defending champion, was running, but injured — and he couldn’t even finish his first round heat.
All the other contenders advanced. Martyn Rooney of Wales, sixth in Beijing, went through, hoping for a shot at a medal with the top Americans out of contention. Oscar Pistorius matched his performance in the World Championships, qualifying for the semifinals. Luguelin Santos won his heat easily, as did James, the Borlee twins from Belgium, and Chris “fourth” Brown of the Bahamas, so named because of his long record of finishing fourth in major championships.
In the semifinals, the favourites advanced again, but the aftermath of the second semifinal caught some attention for other reasons. Kirani James, going for his country’s first Olympic medal, won with room to spare, while Oscar Pistorius came dead last. But after the race, James shook hands with several of his competitors, then approached Pistorius and asked to exchange race numbers with him. (If you are in Britain, you can see the race and the aftermath here at the 2:08 mark, tab 18. If not, you can see the name tag exchange at this site.)
Well, you know, Oscar is someone special to our sport, and especially in our event. It’s a very memorable moment for me just to be out here competing with him.
Many athletes celebrate wildly after winning a race, or qualifying for the final of the biggest event in which they will ever compete, but Kirani James took the time to honour a rival for his accomplishments.
Then came the final (British viewers can see it here at 2:48, tab 18). Santos, at the age of 18 took silver, Chris Brown was fourth yet again, but Kirani James destroyed the field. He ran the fastest 400m ever run in Britain, coloured Grenada’s first medal in gold, and achieved his goal of becoming the first non-American to ever break the 44 second barrier.
I didn’t have time to watch all the Olympics, but I noticed a pattern. The winners would cross the finish line, start jumping around and waving a finger in the air (yes, we know that if you won you are #1 :)), run around like idiots, and go grab a flag. Who can blame them? They’ve worked for years to accomplish this, and they did it!
Kirani James did something different. As soon as he finished, he went back and shook hands with his competitors.
I don’t know anything about this young man other than his athletic achievements and what I saw in the Olympics. But knowing what happened after his semifinal, and seeing his behaviour after winning the final, knowing how excited he must be and what it would mean to him and to many in his home nation, several verses came to mind.
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
If anyone had honour coming to him, the world would think of the winner, Kirani James. But he took the time, both in the semifinal and the final, to show honour and respect to others who, perhaps lacking quite the same physical gifts that he has, have yet achieved much. How consistent are we in honouring those who have done much? Especially, how consistent are we when, on the surface at least, our light seems to be shining brighter than theirs? Do we just take the plaudits, or do we think of others?
6 Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men:
7 For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen.
In watching Kirani James, I was interested in my own reaction. When I saw him go back and shake the hands of his competitors, I thought, “I like this young man.” I found myself wanting to praise him, and realised that I knew nothing about him, to know whether he was praiseworthy or not.
It reminded me of this proverb (and the parable of Christ based on it in Luke 14:8-10). Certainly, James celebrated his victory after greeting his competitors, but by respecting them first, by not drawing attention to his own honour, he made me want to draw attention to it. He may or may not be a wise young man in other ways, but in this he was following the wisdom of Proverbs, and of Christ.
8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
Finally, I thought of this passage. If we bless God with our mouth, we should bless those who are made in God’s image. When we ask to whom honour is due, it is to all. It is not enough to teach ourselves not to curse other people. Because they are made in God’s image, there is a sense in which we should bless and show respect to all.
It isn’t because of their moral character, or their athletic achievements, or anything else. It is because they are in the image of our God.
If we are Christians, and especially if we have been Christians for a while, we shouldn’t need lessons on giving honour to others from a 19-year-old runner. But if we do need that lesson, we’d better learn it.
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Thoughts on the Olympics — The Secret of “Marginal Gains”
Thoughts on the Olympics — The Race Set Before Them