Going for Gold
The 2016 Summer Olympics have begun in Rio! I have many fond memories growing up, hunkered in front of the TV with all my cousins as we watched the Summer Olympics in the late 1970s and 1980s. We exploded into furious applause when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci earned the first perfect 10 score (of many) at only fourteen years young. I could see her coach, Béla Károlyi, a side-burned, thick-mustached father-figure, zipping his little champion up in arms, hugging and kissing her. All of us began wearing our hair in ponytails, flexing in leotards, and choreographing floor routines in our family rooms. When American gymnast Mary Lou Retton earned her perfect 10 score and subsequent medals, we were sure if she could do it—at only 4 foot 9 inches—any of us could take home the Gold too!
Fascinating side note #1: Retton began training in gymnastics because she was also inspired by watching Nadia Comăneci dominate in the 1970s. Retton even trained under Béla Károlyi!
Fascinating side note #2: My cousins and I were learning how to write poetry back then, and I still have this couplet memorized (prepare for mind-blowing literary gymnastics)—
“Mary Lou Retton is a stubby little girl,
but she’s pretty good with her jumps and twirls!” [boom. mic drop.]
Those years are etched in history because gymnasts did what the experts swore was impossible: they earned perfect scores. When boundaries are broken and new horizons are revealed, hope erupts in people everywhere. If the impossible was just made possible, then all things are possible.
This year’s Olympics is also making history in a boundary-breaking way. This is the first time there is a Refugee Olympic Team, comprised of athletes from around the world. Ten refugees displaced from five home countries, now being sheltered in other countries, are going for Gold.
One Olympic swimmer escaped the Syrian war with her sister and 20 others by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. When their boat’s motor stopped working, she and her sister jumped into the water and became human rudders, pushing the boat and everyone in it to safe shores. Two athletes are competing in Judo—a sport that they learned in the refugee camps when they escaped decades-long war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has claimed millions of lives. One of the athletes—who escaped at nine and lived in the forest for eight days before being rescued—said, “When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one. Judo helped me by giving me calmness, discipline, direction – everything.”
Half of the Refugee Olympic Team is long distance runners from South Sudan who have spent years in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. These refugees use running to endure bleak memories of losing their families to war, but they did not necessarily see it as a way out of the refugee camp. In fact, many of them did not use shoes until they were recruited to train!
All of these athletes represent the 19 million global refugees and asylum seekers with an expressed goal to “…send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world.” If the world is still captivated by these elite games as we were in our youth, seeing these refugees break down stereotypes that they are merely “villains or victims” may also encourage whole communities. What if world leaders felt led to engage in more long-term solutions to heal countries in conflict? This will require many with worldly wealth to share it with those in desperate need. Like the rich young ruler in the Bible, this is not an easy conversion. As Jesus says, however, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26)
This “long distance running” reminds me of the exhortation in Hebrews 12 for us to “…run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” This race for us is to love the least, last and the lost, as we heal them in Jesus’ name and declare the Kingdom is here and yet to come. We, the church, are this Refuge, safe haven for refugees among us and abroad.
An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When we run this race together, we all get the Gold. “For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.” (Ps. 149:4)
Your Teammate in Jesus,
~Ella deCastro Baron