Yesterday was a very good day for the Netherlands in Tokyo. Since 1928 our country had not won as many medals in one day at the Olympics as it did yesterday (July 28). It was two times gold, three times silver and three times bronze. With a total of 13 medals, the Netherlands is now (Thursday morning) eleventh in the table of medals. That is about all that I know of the Olympic Games in faraway Japan. Except that I have also learned from the news on TV that, thus far, seven Dutch athletes have tested positive in one of the mandatory tests, and have therefore been moved to a quarantine hotel.
I am not a sports person. I take regular walks but have never actively practiced a sport. I only watch soccer matches when the European or World Championships are in progress, and the Dutch team has successfully reached the quarterfinals (which is quite rare). When that happens a certain degree of national pride wins out over my lack of interest in the game, of which, by the way, I still don’t understand all the rules.
Of course, I understand that it means a lot to an individual athlete or a sports team to qualify for the Games. And, of course, it’s a bitter disappointment when you finish number four, instead of bringing home at least a bronze medal. It’s a bitter pill when things go wrong unexpectedly, as in 2010 when Sven Kramer (a prominent Dutch skater) missed gold because of a faulty switch. He was disqualified because he skated part of the 10,000 meters in the wrong lane. And when the name of mountain biker Mathieu van der Poel is mentioned in the coming months, it will be linked to his fatal fall on the mountain bike circuit, because he was expecting a plank in a place where it no longer lay.
Sport and competition are almost synonymous concepts. In the past, Adventists had quite a few objections to competitive sports. Those days are now mostly behind us. Today many Adventist schools in the USA have sports teams that compete in all kinds of sports competitions—even though the Sabbath often remains an obstacle, since many of the games are held on Saturdays. But it is interesting to see how in the course of a few decades the attitude towards this phenomenon has completely changed. It shows how things can change in the church, as long as it is left to the laws of gradualism and no study committees are formed and no decisions must be taken during world congresses. Some things just need to be given time to develop and solve themselves. [I am convinced that the ordination of women pastors would have slowly but surely become commonplace, had there been an organic process, without the constant use of study committees and endless bureaucratic procedures.]
Competition is an integral part of most aspects of everyday life. The fact that we already give grades to elementary school students often leads to fierce competition. The fact that there are often several candidates for a particular position may create an ugly competitive battle between the candidates. Even in the church, the element of competition is unavoidable. But there must always be a healthy balance. Our natural desire to excel and to do certain things better than others, must always be balanced by a willingness to acknowledge that others are better than we are in certain respects. The Olympics remind us that, when ten athletes compete in the finals, in the end only one man or woman captures the gold. And it is important that the other nine are happy for that one person.
It’s like that in all facets of life. We cannot always, and everywhere, be the best. We often have to recognize the superiority of others. A person–and certainly a Christian–must use the talent he/she has been given. But on the other hand, he/she must be able to rejoice at the success of another who becomes number one, and be happy with a place further down in the queue. In addition to all kinds of biblical statements about utilizing our abilities and talents to the fullest, there are at least as many, or perhaps even more, statements that deal with humility and emphasize that we must recognize the limitations in our knowledge and skills. This is as true for me as a retiree, as it is for the athletes who will be competing in Tokyo in the coming days and who will go for gold. Sometimes we are the best, but most of the time we are not. We must learn to accept this. It is impossible to be happy and to go through life as a contented and grateful person, if we are always in a competitive mode! Participating and doing our very best is more important than winning.