Faith Stories at Tokyo 2020: Athletes
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics witnessed amazing displays of athletes’ faith and acknowledgement of God’s love and grace in their lives, writes Sports Consultant Joseph George in this three-part series.
Religion played a starring role in the early days of the Olympics. Nowadays you will have to take a closer look to spot faith proclamations. There were many obstacles at Tokyo 2020, the major hurdle was the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed the event by a year and affected the athletes’ day-to-day preparations. Finally, every hurdle was cleared and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games commenced on 23 July 2021. The world watched keenly as the world’s best athletes vied for sporting glory.
Hebrews 12:1 What a cloud of innumerable witnesses surround us! So let us be rid of every encumbrance, and especially of sin, to persevere in running the race marked out before us. Different races are marked out for each one of us. For some it’s on the greatest sporting arena, where a few stand tall as witnesses on the podium.
The Fijian men’s rugby team formed a huddle to sing a gospel hymn after winning gold on July 28th at the Tokyo Olympics. This was Fiji’s second gold medal in Olympic Games’ history – the same event in which it won its first earlier. Away from their families for months, this was their heartfelt homage to their near and dear ones. The men paid tribute to their country by singing E Da Sa Qaqa which means, ‘We are winners because of this world’.
Similarly, there are many real heroes among sporting champions, who built their success on strong faith. In this multi-part series we’ll take a look at some of them.
In this first part, we focus on three athletes who made their country and the ‘Kingdom of God’ proud in individual as well as a team event: Women’s 4x400m Relay.
1.Allyson Felix (USA) – Women’s 400m Bronze, Women’s 4x400m Relay Gold
Allyson had 17 World Athletic Championship medals (12G, 3S, 2B – most by an athlete) and 9 Olympic medals as she was preparing for Tokyo 2020. ‘I feel so blessed that God has given me the talent of running. My running is an amazing gift from God and I want to use it to the best of my ability to glorify him.’
This 35-year-old added two more medals (400m Bronze & 4x400m Relay Gold) at Tokyo 2020 to bring her total tally to 11 (G7-S3-B1). She is the second person to have won at least 11 Olympic medals in athletics after Paavo Nurmi (Finland, 12). She eclipsed the legendary Carl Lewis as the most decorated US track and field athlete.
In 2018, Allyson gave birth to her daughter by emergency C-section. She suffered from a severe case of pre-eclampsia, threatening lives of both mother and baby. ‘I feel a greater sense of responsibility now. Of course, qualifying and going after gold medals is still on the top of my list but I also feel this opportunity to show my daughter so many things, show other girls a lot, and to just stand by a lot of my values.’
During her preparations for Tokyo 2020, she announced it would be her fifth and last Olympics and was thankful for the opportunities given by God. ‘It might sound cliché, but getting to that starting line is an incredible victory for me. I’ve experienced the hardest years of my life in this journey and by God’s grace I’m here. With a heart full of gratitude, I’m taking space to remember all it took to get here.’1
Raised in a strong Christian home with a strong faith foundation: ‘I came to know Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour at a very young age. Ever since then, I have continually been striving to grow in my relationship with God. I was nowhere close to the perfect child. I had my share of difficult times along with some disappointing choices that I made, but thankfully God never stops loving me.’2
2.Sydney McLaughlin (USA) – Women’s 400m Hurdles Gold, Women’s 4x400m Relay Gold
Sydney was the youngest US athlete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. After turning 17 during her Olympic Games debut, she has fond memories of her experience despite missing out on a place in the 400m hurdles final. ‘Being able to just get that first-hand experience so young, I really am grateful for it because it just shaped how I looked at things, moving forward, and just my mindset going into big events like that.’Sydney’s social media profiles are a testament to her faith. Twitter bio says ‘Child of God’, Instagram bio ‘Jesus saved me’. She became the first woman to break the 52-second mark at the 400m hurdles this year and set a new world record with her 51.46-second mark at Tokyo 2020. Her compatriot Dalilah Muhammed had also broken the 52-second mark in the finals, but had to settle for the silver. After winning her first gold, the devout Christian wrote a message of ‘submission and obedience to God’ in Instagram: ‘Let me start off by saying, what an honor it is to be able to represent not only my country, but also the kingdom of God. What I have in Christ is far greater than what I have or don’t have in life. I pray my journey may be a clear depiction of submission and obedience to God. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it doesn’t seem possible. He will make a way out of no way. Not for my own gratification, but for His glory. I have never seen God fail in my life. In anyone’s life for that matter. Just because I may not win every race, or receive every one of my heart’s desires, does not mean God has failed. His will is PERFECT. And He has prepared me for a moment such as this. That I may use the gifts He has given me to point all the attention back to Him.
2x Olympian, Olympic Champion, World Record Holder
Thank. You. God.’3
Few days later, on her 22nd birthday, Sydney won the 4x400m relay gold medal along with her idol Allyson Felix. ‘My 2nd gold medal on my 22nd birthday!
Such an amazing experience. I’m so thankful to be able to even run with such amazing, inspiring women. It has been beautiful to see the diversity of our individual circumstances, blend into a historic ending to these games. Allyson, thank you for being a true leader for all to follow. It has been an honor to not only run with you, but train with you as well. I know the future holds nothing but greatness for you and all your endeavors.
Thank you God for another year of life. I look forward to unveiling where it takes me as you continue to establish my steps. God Bless.’4
3.Athing Mu (USA) – Women’s 800M Gold, Women’s 4x400M Relay Gold
Athing Mu was born a year after her family emigrated to the United States of America from Sudan. This 19-year-old athlete is the sixth of seven siblings and was the first to be born in America.
In June 2021 she announced she would forgo her last three years of college eligibility at Texas A&M University and turn professional. ‘Some dreams start as prayers. Quiet prayers whispered alone at night. Prayers from your parents who know that greatness lives inside of you. Today, I’m moving a step closer to my dreams.’
Two months later, Athing Mu became the first American woman to win the 800m race since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She thanked God via a tweet after her historic Gold medal: ‘God definitely took the battle for this one! So, thank you, Lord!’
She knows God’s power and is astonished by what God has done for her: ‘Everyday I’m gaining a better understanding of what it is that God has done and is doing for me. I would say I’m “astonished” but the truth is I know God’s power.’
In 2019 and 2020, she had some hard times. In the end, she chose to grasp onto God and allow him to take complete control of her life. ‘When you say “yes” to your calling, God is going to provide you with what you need for it but if you go too soon, you might abort what it is He is trying to accomplish in you. I was missing two important things in my life, FAITH and CONFIDENCE. Today and forever, I’ll have both.’5
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