BBC Radio 4:Rev Professor David Wilkinson 07/08/17


You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.

Good morning. ‘This is sport, there isn’t always a happy ending’, commented Steve Cram at the end of the World Championship 100 metres. For many a celebration of a 20th global gold medal for Usain Bolt, one of the greatest athletes of all time, turned into anger and despair at the win of Justin Gatlin, twice banned for drugs.

It was an unhappy ending for the sport, desperate to recover public trust in its fairness and transparency. Yet even in defeat greatness shone through. For it was Bolt who received the adulation of the crowd and it was Bolt who spent the time doing interview after interview.

A friend of mine has been part of the Chaplaincy team at a number of Olympic games. I once asked him what was the most difficult issue that athletes encountered. He said it was virtually universal and it was how to cope with failure. Years of saCRIfice in training and competition with the goal of being the greatest could be wiped out by a fraction of a second. In this context it is not surprising that the temptation to enhance performance by drugs is so powerful.

The extraordinary documentary, ‘I am Bolt’, gave a picture of such saCRIfice and the complex motivations that lead to greatness – the competitive instinct, the fear of failure, the context of fame and wealth, and the provocation of rivals. Yet there is something about Usain Bolt which transcends much of this. Exhibited in his joy and playfulness, it is perhaps about a sense of his own identity and calling. Reflecting his sense of the transcendent he commented, ‘God put me on this earth to run and that is what I am going to do’. This wider fruitful perspective on life and achievement was echoed in the Christian belief of Australian sprinting legend Betty Cuthbert who died last night and is shared by that other great of the World Championships, Sir Mo Farrah, who points to ‘being Muslim and having faith’.

Greatness in the end is not characterised by being valued at 200 million pounds or by an undefeated record. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, ‘Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.’ Reflecting in these words the teaching of Jesus, I find this a continual challenge to my own life, work and sense of self.

Through turbulent times in athletics, Bolt has served his sport by holding it together. The way that he conducted himself in the midst of an unhappy ending, not least in the embrace of Gatlin was a symbol of redemption and a sign of true greatness.

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