In God We Trust, Huh?

By David

That was a truly fantastic 1500 swim of Kate Zeigler. It speaks volumes for her talent, application and discipline. More than that however Zeigler invites us to discuss the role a Christian God plays in athletic success. On several occasions recently she has taken the opportunity presented by her athletic success to promote the role her God has played in seeing these things come to pass. She says her talent comes from “God who gave me the gift of swimming.” Before each event she recites “All things through Christ who gives me strength (Philippians 4.13). Evidently she has the time to repeat the verse through her race.

Craig Lord of Swimnews reports that Zeigler told him, “When races get hard, I’m like ‘come on God …’. It plays a huge role. Over 30 laps (1,500m) I do say that quote quite often. It gets me through the pain; I can clearly remember one practice: it was brutal, a really long set, it was hurting terribly. I kept saying it and said some Hail Marys.”

Now, if Zeigler is telling us about her Christian God as a personal insight into her life it is a good and proper thing. It is no different from those boxers who win their contests and thank Jesus for giving them the strength to beat their fellow man senseless. Whether God gets involved in 1500 meter swims or boxing matches can be debated long into the night. If it makes Zeigler and prize fighters feel better then I guess there is no harm done.

Arthur Lydiard would call such talk a “red underpants moment”. He was referring to an Olympic athlete whom he coached who insisted on wearing red underwear in major races. Lydiard tried to talk him out of it. What would happen, Lydiard argued, if his red underwear went missing on the morning of the Olympic finals? It was fifty thousand miles of training that had made him one of the world’s best runners, not a pair of red underpants. Lydiard failed; at the Olympics the guy wore his red underpants and they worked – much to the relief of his coach and his grateful nation.

Trust in God’s assistance can be taken too far. One very good New Zealand swimmer told me he once shared a room with a competitor in the same event at an international meet. Each night the room mate knelt beside the bed and said a prayer. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, and I would agree. Except that is when the prayer included a loud and strongly worded request that God assist his humble servant beat my informant in tomorrow’s race.

If however Zeigler is suggesting that all of us should adopt Christ as a means of swimming 1500 under 16 minutes then, I think, there is a problem. When I played football for Thorp High School in Wisconsin – it’s off the subject, but the Green Bay Packers team bought my senior class ring – the team coach used to have us recite the Lord’s Prayer with him before running on to the field. It always made me slightly uncomfortable. Why should a loving God take our side compared to the decent set of chaps who represented Stanley High School down the road? It was, I thought, using God in a role that probably made Him most uncomfortable.

It’s also hard to forget that in World War One the British troops at the Battle of the Somme held up signs saying, “God with us.” A hundred yards away the Germans also had signs. They said, “Gott mit uns.” I doubt you need a translation. In the attack the British and French gained 12 kilometres of ground, the taking of which resulted in 420,000 British casualties, plus a further 200,000 French casualties. German casualties were estimated to run at around 500,000. Makes you wonder what would have happened if God hadn’t been with them.

So no, I do not think my job includes teaching Christianity as means to athletic fame. Two John 3.16s do not equal a fast 100 freestyle. It is probably opportune to remind Zeigler and those boxing Christians of Mathew 6.6 “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” The scriptures appear to be saying that Zeigler’s prayers are best kept to herself.

Besides not agreeing with teaching Christianity as a means to athletic fame, the principle would cause me some confusion. Which God would I chose? While the Christian God appears to have helped Zeigler; in track and field the men’s 1500 world record is held by a Morrocan Hicham El Guerrouj, who probably thinks Allah is just the ticket to get you through a fast 1500. The women’s track 1500 world record is held by Qu Yunixia from China. She would probably subscribe to the Buddhist view that “we are what we think”. And then there is the confusion of the first man to break 15 minutes for 1500 swimming, the Soviet athlete Vladimir Salnikov. He could well have accepted the official Marxist position of his nation that all religion “is the opium of the people.”

And as for me, I still think red underwear works best.