I got home from the restaurant about 10:30 Saturday night, put on my pajamas and Ginger and I hunkered down for the storm. It’s now Monday morning and neither of us have left the house or changed out of our pajamas. Both our congregations cancelled services. We watched a couple of movies – Millions (highly recommended) and The Polar Express – and we kept checking back with the various weather people to see how the storm was progressing. We knew it was snowing (we could see) and we knew it was windy (it blows through our house like water through a sieve), but we wanted to know what was happening around us.
Most of the forecasters were downright elated by the storm. Their jobs have been fairly boring this winter, I guess, since we haven’t had much snow. I was amused by how jazzed they got every time they were on camera. When the storm met the criteria for a blizzard they were beside themselves. Then they moved on to talking about how this ranked as an all-time storm. We got a fair amount of snow – twelve to twenty inches across eastern Massachusetts, but the storm only ranked as Number Eleven on the all-time list. We didn’t even break the top ten.
They seemed a little disappointed.
Last night, we kept checking in on the Olympics. Two events caught my eye: snowboarding and short track speed skating. The snowboarders capture me with their free spirits and reckless-but-purposeful abandon. The sport is packed full of creative tension and whimsy. They are non-conformists and precision performers at the same time: bungee-jumping ballerinas. When they soar up about the edge of the half-pipe doing flips and turns, they make it look as though any of us could do it. Even though we all know better, for a moment we get to go along for the ride.
The speed skaters are another matter. Short track means they are going as fast as they can on a course that is too slick and two short for the kind of speed they achieve. As Ginger noted, it’s human NASCAR, which means, of course, we’re all waiting for the crash.
Two Americans ended up center stage in the two events: one won and one didn’t. Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, won the gold medal in Snowboarding. Apolo Anton Ohno, who was supposed to win, didn’t make the finals because he slipped in the final turn. He was in second place, which would have qualified him, but he pressed to win the heat and it cost him.
Both White and Ohno gave it their best shot. Both do things most of us can only dream of doing. Yet, in a world where even our weather competes against itself, one will be remembered and one will not. Such is the logic of competition, particularly in America.
A couple of things to clear up: one, I’m an amazing average athlete. As the perennial last-picked-why-don’t-you-play-right-field-kid, it’s no wonder I’m a cook and a writer. Two, I’m not without my competitive streak; I’m just questioning why we only remember the winners.
(Quick, name three fourth place finishers in any event at any time.)
One of the biblical metaphors that gets lost in our go-for-the-gold mentality is the idea of life as a race. “Let us run the race that is set before us,” says the writer of Hebrews, “fixing our eyes on Jesus. The point of the race is to finish, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, everyone encouraging one another. I’m afraid the American translation would challenge us to get across the finish line first so we could shout, “Jesus love you, but I’m his favorite!”
In 1968, a young African was sent by his country to run the marathon in Mexico City. His name was John Steven Okwari . (I heard his story years ago, but I’m afraid I don’t remember the county or how to spell his name.) He finished dead last. Four hours after the winner crossed the finish lines, Okwari entered the Olympic stadium. He was so far behind that the closing ceremonies were over. When word reached the stadium that one person was still on the course, about thirty thousand people stayed in the stands to wait for him. After the race he was asked why he bothered to keep going.
“My country sent me to finish the race,” he said.
He was last — even Google can’t find him now – and he did his best.
Shawn White was the best in the world at what he does yesterday. He deserved the gold medal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t congratulate or reward him. I am saying life is not a competition. Our churches and classrooms are packed full of folks who are not Number One. They’re not even Number Four. While we often talk of the courage it takes to play through the pain to win, we fail to notice the courage it takes to live day to day feeling unnoticed or even invisible.
I see it in the eyes of the “fringe kids” who come to youth group because they know they belong. I hear it in the voice of the Brazilian woman who sings while she washes dishes for nine bucks an hour. We matter not because we are all winners, but because we are breathing – because we are God’s creation, every last one of us.
Every last one.
John Stephen Akhwari (b. 1938?, Mbulu, Tanganyika) was an Olympic athlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He representated Tanzania in the marathon but he fell during the race badly cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. Rather than quitting, he continued running. He finished last among the 74 competitors. When asked why he ran he said simply, “My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it.”
Akhwari has lent his name to the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation which supports Tanzanian athletes training for the Olympic Games. (from wikipedia)