Pierre de Coubertin got the idea for this phrase from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot, at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.
The Olympic Creed reads: ‘The most important thing in t h e 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’.
The creed and motto are meant to spur the athletes to embrace the Olympic spirit and perform to the best of their abilities.
The creed is appropriate for the Olympics because, of the thousands of athletes who take part, the vast majority have no hope of winning. Before the starter’s gun fires they are ‘also-rans’, and are quite willing for that. They know they have neither the ability nor strength to win outright, so just to take part satisfies them.
The others, who do have the ability to win medals, don’t leave it to chance, but literally give up years of their lives to train to win. To them, winning is all that matters and some would tell you that they are not interested in coming second. For them, it is a gold medal or nothing.
This is all OK in the Olympics, but it is not what the Bible says about eternal life. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses the illustration of the athlete running the race to bring home to us certain lessons about the Christian life.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, we have this vivid illustration: ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize’.
Every Christian is encouraged to run to win. In the Games’ events there can only be one winner, but in the Christian life every believer is a winner and can receive the prize. Yet this does not come automatically; strict training is needed.
Paul is urging upon us the need for self-discipline. The Christian athlete must discipline himself to lay aside all that would hinder his progress in the great race in which he is entered. Hebrews 12 says, ‘Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith’.
Here again, the illustration is vivid and clear. Can you imagine a runner, in the Olympics 100- metres final, turning up in a duffle coat and Wellington boots? Of course not! He strips for action and throws off everything that would prevent him from winning.
For most of us, there was very little self-discipline or order about our lives before we became Christians. We did things, either because we had to do them (for example, going to school or to work), or because we liked doing them (for example, sport or music). In most areas of our lives, self-discipline played very little part.
But, once a person becomes a Christian, that has to change. Over and over again, the Bible exhorts us to discipline ourselves. We constantly read phrases like ‘make every effort’ (2 Peter 1:5), ‘purposed in his heart’ (Daniel 1:8), ‘press towards the goal’ (Philippians 3:14), and ‘put off … put on’ (Ephesians 4:22-25). And all these phrases speak of self-discipline.
You may think that self-discipline does not sound very spiritual. All that matters, surely, is that we should have faith?
Faith, of course, is crucial; but you need to realise that without a disciplined life you will stagnate as a Christian. Self-discipline means that, irrespective of your feelings, you do what is right.
It means also that you refrain from doing what is wrong, even though there may be a strong desire and a natural tendency to do it (read Ephesians 4:17-32). There is no aspect of our spiritual life that will not benefit greatly by daily self-discipline.
For Bible study and prayer it is essential. Setting a time and sticking to it is not being legalistic; it is a right and proper approach to the things of God. How easy it is to waste a great deal of time on trivialities, and then to plead that we have no time to feed our souls!
Discipline does not take all the joy, spontaneity and excitement out of the Christian life. On the contrary, because it deepens our relationship with God, it adds to our joy, spontaneity and sense of expectancy.
Can you think of a more disciplined man than the apostle Paul — and was there ever a man more filled with the Holy Spirit and the joy of the Lord?
In Paul’s time, the prize was a crown of pine or olive leaves, which was the emblem of glory. But, at the same time, it was only a crown that would not last. The Christian’s crown is eternal.
‘Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:8).
We do not compete with other believers for this crown. But it is for all Christians, and is awarded by Christ himself. Paul concludes the amazing chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, on the resurrection, with these words: ‘But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
‘Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’.
To be continued.
Edited from It’s only a game, to be published soon by Solid Ground Christian Books (USA)