The first time I cried as a spectator at a sporting event was in the fall of 2010. My dad and younger sister were running the Richmond marathon after months of training together. Standing at the finish, I watched elite runners glide over the line. Alongside them were others, hobbling, stumbling, and heaving as they finished the race. Some were being carried by friends and strangers, some were sick and weak, but they were all finishing. Somehow, on their own or with the help of others, they were finishing. And I as I watched them, I cried.
We could see Dad and my sister cresting the last hill, step for step with each other. Annie, my sister, was beaming, Dad serious and proud. Pressed up against the metal fencing, I shouted to them, “Annie! Dad! You did it! You made it!” Then I turned away, trying to choke back the tears. Always the “emotional one” in the family, I didn’t want to give my sisters anything else to mock me over. In turning my gaze, I caught all my other women crying too—my mom, my other sisters, my aunt, all of us.
In the last twenty yards, dad grabbed Annie’s hand and, linked together, they strode across the finish line. We waved a dozen flailing arms in their direction. Our voices cracked as we shouted, broken and nasally through our tears, “We’re so proud of you!”
By this point in my life, I was well versed in sports and competitions. I had crossed hundreds of finish lines, had gotten on my marks-set-went to the sound of dozens of guns. I might have cried when I didn’t perform as I had hoped, but in all my years of competition, I never wept when watching others perform. Whatever happened at that Richmond marathon was different; these tears weren’t just for me and my victories or failures.
I had watched Annie and my father train for months, submitting themselves to the demands of discipline. All of the runners in this marathon had committed to something that seemed impossible, and here they were, proving it not to be so. They accepted the mantle of training, practicing, and sacrificing, all of which was necessary to accomplish something great. They gave so much time, so much time that could have been spent sleeping or drinking or eating brunch with friends. They gave this time regardless of whether they would sprint or stagger through that finish line.
And yet, there were some who did not make it to the finish line. Not everyone beat their personal record. Some of the runners that day may have been so overcome with exhaustion and nausea that they passed out on the road. Some may have cracked their heel, as my sister did in mile 3 of the Boston marathon, and limped for twenty-three miles. The human body is not limitless. Sports remind us of this fallibility, but sports also demand so much of these bodies despite our imperfection. It is perhaps a great irony of humanity: that which demands our best can best illuminate the capacity of our flaws.
I am no tennis player, but I’ve been watching Roger Federer play for over a decade. Federer’s game is a river—moving serenely in one direction, powerful but on the surface, calm. Over the hours of a match, he’ll rarely wince and rarely celebrate. His playing is entrancing: he volleys back and forth back and forth, nothing breaking his rhythm or levelheaded balance. After a hard-fought victory though, he’ll fall to the ground, clutch his face, and cry. It’s as if the dam breaks, and his heart pours out on the court.
And for the past decade, Federer has consistently reigned as the best tennis player in the world. Recently, a man woke from an eleven-year coma and was stunned to find that his favorite tennis star, Federer, was still playing at the top of his game. And it’s true: Roger Federer won three Grand Slams in 2004. But it was just the beginning. The even-keeled Federer went on to win again and again, year over year, upholding a career that to this day makes him, perhaps undeniably, the best tennis player that has ever lived.
Yet we know that the Federers of this world will pass away (1 John 2:17). As the old song says, the things of this earth will grow strangely dim. It’s a theme echoed throughout all of the Scriptures: that which we see as real now is actually hollow, and that which is unseen is real. The first psalm likens these real things to a leaf that never withers, whereas our worldly things, our athleticism and enthusiasm, will blow away like chaff in the wind.
Inevitably, Federer will not win as much as he has. His eclipse has perhaps already started. Federer will take a backseat to Novak Djokovic, Tiger Woods will take an indefinite absence from the PGA, and surely one day, Russell Wilson will fade—though likely not without a fight—into the background like the gunslinging quarterback Brett Favre. Some athletes accept this, and others live in delusion, as if the glory of their athletic prowess is indomitable. It’s why 16 percent of retired NFL players go bankrupt; it’s why ESPN could produce a documentary called Broke which was dedicated entirely to following athletes going into debt.
We have enough God in us to want to be God ourselves. We are smart enough and capable enough to shatter expectations and prove others wrong. We can break records and in doing so, make a name for ourselves. And yet in every sport, athletes risk the terrible fate of losing, the terrible risk of remembering that they are not gods, that they are leaves blown by the winds of age, injury, and declining skill. I cry because these are people of great hope and that moves me, but even as they strive for greatness, I see that they are passing away.
Regardless of the certain and impending conclusion to every athletic career, there is still much joy to be had here in our places of impermanent strength and accomplishment. Many, if not most, people play sports or pursue fitness because, to put it simply enough, they enjoy it. And this joy is not shallow.
We have been knit together by this God that we wear on our faces and who pulses through our bloodstream. If we believe that we were made in the image of a God who is all loving, all truth, all goodness, we also must believe that we will experience joy when we bear God’s image. When we use our God-given strength, skill, discipline, intelligence, and ethics together, we glorify the God who created these gifts and imbued them on us, the God who wants us to revel in our identity as image-bearers. Grace upon grace that our toil and trial can be pleasure!
Within this joy, I believe there is a hidden hope for what is yet to come. It is a striving and a foretaste of our full identity, and we are given just enough of a taste to make us follow after it. On this side of heaven, all our sports, our endeavors to be strong, are glimpses of what will be—running without ceasing and playing without pain. We experience now a shadow of what will be, and what we see here in this dim light is more than enough to warrant our chasing.
Our strength and ability to accomplish great feats of physicality are a hint at our sanctity as humans, but these qualities are still bound to the ephemeral nature of our earthly bodies. In sports, this potential and this lacking are held in a system of checks and balances. That athletes continue to race and play and try is perhaps a great feat of human fortitude and will. For all of this—our strength, our abilities—will not last. This absolutely will not last. But still, there were 5,117 people who ran the Richmond Marathon last year. What strength is this that motivates us to choose something so difficult and so fleeting? Because we can, because we are image bearers, because we see something in this, because we can commit ourselves to something, find joy from something, grow from something, and still hold that thing loosely. Because we have a seed of hope for what is to come, and that seed demands our effort, regardless of the cost.
So every time we watch athletes cross a finish line, win the Super Bowl, take home the cup, we are reminded that this is fleeting. This is not indelible. This is a moment.
And every time we watch athletes lose, fail to surpass their record, see their performance slowly begin to recede, we are also reminded that this is fleeting. It is not indelible. It is imperfect and it is a moment.
Our athletic efforts are an affront to our limitations and our brokenness; they are a braggadocious act of hope. They say that even if we are imperfect, even if the arc of all of life eventually moves toward death or decay, it is not the whole story. We are still capable of great strength and great joy even in the here and now. So we put on hope like a cloak and run toward something that, we believe, will one day be made whole.
And so, since that November morning years ago, I cry at nearly every sporting event. I cry when I watch a marathon. I cry when Roger Federer receives a serve at Wimbledon. Because every time someone dares their body and will to accomplish a great physical feat, I know what they risk, I know what they give, I know what they taste, and I know what they aim for.