For a moment I forgot that I was an American. I was sitting with my family on the gaudy sofa in our cramped student flat, watching the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics on the television we had borrowed. Heading into our fourth and final year in Oxford, we were indulging in a break from the grind of dissertation writing and software development projects. It was hard to tell which was more worn out, the sofa or its two adult occupants.
If anything, the frustration of watching the Olympics from English soil only heightened our American sensitivities, at least initially. British networks held us hostage and so, instead of seeing in- depth coverage of our American team, we were compelled to follow the Queen’s athletes and some rather obscure events we would have otherwise ignored. It was irksome at first. But during the men’s 100-meter race, to my surprise (and despite a lineup of superb young American sprinters) I forgot about national loyalties and found myself cheering an over-the-hill Brit, thirty-two-year-old British team captain Linford Christie, who astonished everyone by seizing the gold medal victory from his younger Yankee competitors. It was a dramatic upset—one of those Olympic moments you never forget. The Sunday Times in London printed this description of the spectacle: “When Linford Christie came powering down the 100-metre track, ahead of the fancied Americans, some of us were privileged to be sitting close to the finish line. We saw our man, a Briton by way of the West Indies, catapult into history. We saw the eyes popping, the astonishing hypnotic concentration, the biceps rippling. The impression of speed, and the knowledge that this was a man reaching his peak for less than 10 seconds in a lifetime, was awesome.”1
Christie’s stunning performance caught everyone off guard, including the experts. But the most unforgettable aspect of his race (people would be talking about it for a long time afterward) was the half-crazed look of determination in his eyes. He was so focused on the finish line, one reporter observed, his “pop-eyed gaze made him look as if he was running away from mortal danger rather than towards his finest moment.”2 Christie would later describe a self-imposed tunnel vision that blocked out everything but the lane ahead. I suppose the exaggerated expression on his face made some spectators laugh, but who could argue with the result? Not that such a focused gaze ensures coming in first. But even an untrained observer could see that what he did with his eyes maximised everything else he did to run his race.
But for me this was more than a powerful exhibition of expert running techniques. Strange as it sounds (and now it’s Christie’s turn to laugh), when I saw that fierce, almost obsessive look in his eyes and the masterful way he ran, I thought of myself. The event was for me a vigorous reenactment of how seamlessly life and theology come together in a woman’s life. Admittedly there is a world of difference between a less-than-ten-second sprint and the marathon I was running, not to mention the differences between Christie and myself. But I couldn’t help seeing parallels between what was happening on the Olympic track in Barcelona and the race I was trying to run in Oxford. It was all there—the planned race; the power of unencumbered running; vigour, intensity, and perseverance; the riveted concentration on the goal; and one more thing I hadn’t yet factored into my thinking: the unrestrained out- burst of joy after he crossed the finish line.
Watching Christie run convinced me afresh of my need for theology. Here I was in my own race, facing challenges and stresses well beyond my limits, struggling just to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. How easy to lose my focus and centre on myself or to gauge my progress by glancing sideways to see how well (or badly) I compared with other women instead of fixing my eyes on Jesus. As Christie’s race flashed past and into the annals of Olympic history, he left behind a vivid reminder that what I did with my eyes would make a difference too.
1. Rob Hughes, "The Power and the Glory," The Sunday Times Magazine, 16 August 1992, p.16
2. Ibid., 24
Taken from When Life and Beliefs Collide by Carolyn Custis James. Copyright (c) 2001 by Carolyn C. James. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
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Carolyn Custis James (BA, Sociology; MA, Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. She travels extensively both in the US and abroad as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, theological seminaries, and other Christian organisations. She is an adjunct professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, blogs on www.whitbyforum.com and Huffington Post / Religion, and is a contributing editor for Leadership Journal.