The Devotion of an Olympian

by | Feb 11, 2018 | Spirituality, Sports

For the next two weeks in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the world will celebrate an athletic tradition which began near Mount Olympus in mainland Greece in honor of Zeus in 776 BCE.

Athleticism at its finest reveals the tremendous potential of the human person to exercise their will through disciplined training of their bodies and minds. The excellence we will witness in the performances of these athletes will be breathtaking.

But the breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t just happen. Great daily effort and mental toughness is required of these athletes to reach the summit of their sport. Olympians are tremendously driven individuals, who aspire for greatness over comfort, and have a tremendously high tolerance for pain. The athlete’s will to give everything they have beyond the threshold of pain most of us are inclined to tolerate is truly remarkable. Excellence requires the mental toughness to keep giving your all each day, even when you’re not feeling it.

Where do these athletes find the strength to break the cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain?

To my mind, an athlete’s strength is derived from the dreams of the human heart and the will to achieve them. And it’s fair to say that the human will, while exercised through physiological means, is not reducible to neurological processes, but is rather exercised through an intrinsic relationship between physiology and immateriality.

(CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

But enough about the existence of the human soul and its intrinsic union with the body. Let’s talk about how much fun we will have watching the Olympic Games!!

What events are you looking forward to most? Are you into the gravity-defying tricks of the half-pipe or freestyle skiing? Perhaps you adore watching figure skater’s glide across the ice with mesmerizing beauty and grace? And who doesn’t like watching human beings ski downhill at speeds over 50 miles an hour? If ice hockey is your thing, the women’s tournament should be awesome! But don’t get your hopes up with the men cause the boys from the NHL had to stay home.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoy sitting on the couch and watching the high octane sport of… you guessed it… curling! Who doesn’t like watching a person try to curl a 44 lb granite stone around and between two other stones into the middle of a three ring cycle that is 72 ft across a sheet of ice?! It’s exhilarating!

Besides watching the events themselves, I also find the storylines behind the athletes’ pursuit of their dreams to be very moving. Take the story of Korean figure skater, Yuna Kim, and her powerful conversion to the Catholic faith. After her conversion in 2008, she promised God to “pray always”, especially before competitions, and became Olympic Champion in figure skating in Vancouver in 2010 posting a record-breaking score. More importantly, she went on to support Catholic education in war-torn South Sudan and became an ambassador for the Olympic truce which stands for peace between nations in conflict. And all this because she met some local nuns who showed her the power of loving God and others and the true and lasting joy it brings.

Regardless of the events you prefer to watch or the storyline you choose to follow, I hope you take the time to appreciate the awe-inspiring devotion to excellence these athletes exhibit. I know I hope to be so inspired by their devotion so as to be more fully alive. And, I hope to do my best to resist the ever-present temptation to be OK with mediocrity. It’s not easy. But, as the saying goes: where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Emanuel Werner, SJ   /   All posts by Emanuel