God Loves Losers: Reflections on the Olympics

God Loves Losers: Reflections on the Olympics August 1, 2012

I’m an Olympics junkie. Not only that, but I’m also  most ardently pro-American when watching them. My wife, Amy, and I were watching synchronized platform diving two nights ago (honestly, when else would we do that??) and she said she was kind of pulling for the team from Mexico to medal, even though it might mean pushing the Americans out of the running.

“What the hell are you talking about?’ I said, more than a little incredulous.

“We win so much already,” she said. “This is a rare chance for Mexico.”

“If you root for another country,” I grumbled, “the terrorists win.”

I’m usually a fan of the underdog, and I’m not exactly a sports fanatic, but something about the national zeal, combined with the athletic excellence, brings it out in me.

Of course, there’s a part of all of us that loves a winner. There’s a reason why so many people wear the jerseys of their favorite teams or players (way more when that person or team is on top than not, by the way), why we revert to a sort of tribal level of passion, painting our faces, screaming rabidly, and why we practically make a religion out of our sports. At one level, it’s inspiring to see someone achieve what appears to be unattainable. The idea of doing what most Olympians do – or all professional athletes, for that matter – is hard to comprehend. But when we get to witness it, it serves to embolden our faith in humanity a little bit.

Yes, we screw up a lot, we fight each other and we’re warming up the planet at an alarming rate. But once in a while, it’s transcendent to watch someone do something amazing, beautiful, a little bit closer to perfect.

Then there’s a baser drive at play too. After all, if it was just about athletic ability, inspiration and beauty, we’d have no need for medals and the whole “competition” thing. We love winners particularly because there are losers. In fact, the more losers there are, the sweeter the winners appear. I expect this taps into some very basic evolutionary stuff for us. Though we don’t toss people into gladiator forums to fight to the death any more (though we get pretty close), we love to pit two individuals or teams against each other to fight it out in an all-or-nothing decision.

We shower the victor with adoration, attention and treasure, while the loser, no matter how slim the margin, fades into obscurity.

Why? Because we crave a means of determining who is “the best,” so that we can identify ourselves with them. Once we know Michael Phelps, the New England Patriots or whoever are the best, we can buy their uniform, eat their cereal and drink their sports drink, all the while, feeling like we possess a little piece of them.

Oh without all that work, practice and emotional tribulation stuff.

It’s not unlike making an alliance with the pack leader, really. Once we know who the alpha is, we know who to cozy up to so we ensure our own safety and survival. It’s funny that, on one level, sports can be so inspiring and transcendent of the basic human condition, while also appealing to our most primitive selves at the same time. No wonder they’re popular.

The one thing that irks me is when people thank God after they win. I’m not sure why it irritates me, because scripture urges us to give thanks in all things. But there’s something about it all that suggests God plays favorites, that God loves winners more than the ones who lost. I understand feeling caught up in the excitement of the moment and wanting to offer some word of thanks to God, but the way we marry this with victory plays into a perception of Christianity in our culture that I’d rather shed.

I’m not saying that God isn’t on the side of those who emerge victorious. Look at David, taking on a big warrior with a kid’s toy, or Solomon, for that mater. That guy was pretty successful. But for the most part, God – and Jesus in particular – seemed to be fond of the less-than-stellar folks. Peter was quite the screw-up, yet God built the church with him. Paul wrote much of what became the New Testament, and in addition to having a spotty track record, he clearly wrestled with demons his entire life.

Then there’s Jesus, hanging out with the losers, the sick, the criminals; the kind of folks you would not likely see climbing to the top of the medal stand.  And although I’d love to identify as often as possible with the big winners, more often than not my heart lands in the losers’ camp too.

And if you’re a fan of come-from-behind victories like the ones so often celebrated in the sports world, you can’t really do much better than Jesus.


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  • Chuckles

    Just as I am
    I am stiff-necked and proud
    Jesus is for losers
    Why do I still play to the crowd?
    – Steve Taylor, Jesus is for Losers

  • The one thing that irks me is when people thank God after they win. ”  Yes. Like God wasn’t helping out the losers?  I kind of root for other countries too :/  especially when I know it’s largely b/c American is so spoiled that we have all this money and free time to spend on training…..I do like the more underdoggy type of stories, like the American gymnast who has a single mom and they had to move away from her.  That is rough and involves a lot of sacrifice.  Or the Cuban-American gymnast who helped pay for his mom’s mortgage.  

    I’ve been using Expat Shield to watch the BBC field, and it’s so much more fun to watch all of the countries compete.  Then at least if we win, I don’t feel like that’s all I’ve seen.  The girls gymnastics gold was more fun to watch them win, after seeing all of their competition.  You see what they were up against.  NBC just shows them being awesome and winning, and you don’t really get into the whole story of them.

    • reminds me of a comment about the crowd watching the men’s road race. The commentator critised the crowd for not only cheering team GB (yes, I’m from the other side of the pond) but also the back markers and also the police escorts.
      Actually, I like it when people thank God for their win – they’re acknowledging that it’s not just by their own efforts – God gave them the ability.

  • Just because the winners thank God, that does not have to mean that God plays favorites.  Only that God is with all the competitors helping them to do their best and come out uninjured that day.   And there are lessons to be learned in victory and defeat and God had a plan for all the competitors that day. 

    Hopefully, they thank God in their defeats as well, but that is not as “inspiring” to watch on TV, right?   They only seem to focus on the “thrill of victory” and show the “agony of defeat” in those moments afterwards where the also rans are feeling the initial sting.  They don’ t typically interview the “losers” for very long, if at all.    

    What I find sad now is that winning a silver or bronze medal is often considered “losing”. How many other competitors failed to even make the Olympic team?  It takes so much just to make it there, getting in the top 3 is an enormous accomplishment.  I wish we could see that acknowledged that more in the media. 

  • I think just like your wife, we win so much, we can afford to let others win sometimes too.  Sports competitions are always boring when it’s the same people or teams winning all the time, even when it’s your own team. 

    I must admit, much as I do love Michael Phelps, I was happy for the South African kid that beat him by tenths (or was hundredths) of a second.  Mike has 20 medals, a record likely to go unbroken for many years.  He can afford to let another young man go home to his family and country with a gold medal.  

    • SJ

      Just a reminder here: Michael Phelps didn’t let the South African swimmer take a gold medal home. (Sorry, that’s just a little ‘not an American’ schadenfreude.)

      • That’s not how I meant that to sound.  He won that gold and deserved to. I guess I meant it more in the sense that Phelps could afford to be gracious in that defeat, which I believe he was.   Not that he purposely “let” anybody win. 

        • SJ

          Sure, I understand. There is no doubt that Michael Phelps is a great athelete. That he can be gracious in defeat certainly shows a depth of character.
          As someone who is a neighbour to the United States, I was probably reacting to what we often perceive as a sense of entitlement on the part of the United States on the world stage. Hence the schadenfreude.
          Enjoy the rest of the games, there is some wonderful competition to see.

  • I really wanted the Mexicans to medal in that event, too. =)

  • Elizabeth

    Usually the media focuses on the “winners.”  However, I’ve seen many an interview where the “losers” also thanked God for providing them w/ their abilities and chance to compete.  It is refreshing to see “losers” being graceful about the outcome, but it’s also refreshing seeing “winners” also having that same grace.