Spiritual Lessons from the Olympics

You could not run from the Olympics over the past several weeks, even if you tried.  NBC ran continual coverage of the Olympics, broadcasting live from the games.  And certainly the nightly news covered happenings and highlights from the Games—from the US swimmer debacle with the authorities to the successes our country and others had. The readings we heard at Mass this past weekend for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time all contained little gems, in which spiritual principles could be derived, allowing us to reflect on the spiritual life in light of the Olympics.

Principle One: Glorify God

Thus says the Lord… I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.  –Isaiah 66:18

The Lord tells us through the Prophet Isaiah that he has come to gather the nations of every language in order to manifest His glory.  In total, 207 nations gathered together in Rio, all for one purpose, to compete and seek the gold.  God reveals His glory through these athletic competitions.  If you watched any of the interviews with medalists after they competed, the majority of them returned the glory back to God.  The abilities these athletes possess come from God and so over and over again they returned the praise back to God.

Over the past week and a half many Catholic and Christian columnists noted the religiosity of the Olympians.  Simone Biles keeps a rosary in her gym bag and makes it to Mass; Kate Ledecky prays a Hail Mary before she competes; Usain Bolt wears a Miraculous Medal while racing; Michael Phelps credits Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life as saving him on the brink of despair; and Meb Keflezighi boasts on his twitter page he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.  Suffice to say, the religious beliefs and practices of many Olympians informs their victory celebrations.  They know through their sport they are able to glorify God with their body and so they give all praise to God for their accomplishments.

Principle TwoDiscipline

At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.  –Hebrews 12:11

This weekend we continue our reading from Hebrews 12.  Last week we heard of the great cloud of witnesses, which in terms of the Olympics we could see as the spectators who gather to cheer the athletes on to victory.  This week, the author of Hebrews focuses on discipline.  Any athlete competing for the gold exercised discipline in their years of training.  They focused on proper diet, denying themselves many pleasures such as sweets or alcohol.  They become disciplined, rising early and hitting the gym, and doing the same thing over and over and over attempting to reach perfection.  In the moment of discipline, it probably seems painful, but the fruit of their discipline is the opportunity to stand on the podium and earn a medal.  The discipline that it took seems worth it in the end!

The spiritual life also requires discipline.  To become a saint means we must set goals and exercise discipline in accomplishing them.  Want to pray more?  Set aside a time each day and do not negotiate it away.  Want to wake up early?  Be disciplined and get up when the alarm first goes off rather than hitting snooze.  Also advancing in the moral life means being disciplined and resisting occasions of sin so as to grow in virtue.  After making a decision requires discipline in order to stay true to our spiritual resolutions.  While on earth, our spiritual discipline may seem for naught, but when we receive our eternal reward, it will have been worth it.

Principle Three:  Put Others First

For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.  –Luke 13:30

During the 5,000-meter qualifying round on Tuesday, New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino collided and fell to the ground.  For any Olympian, their mind would be set on getting back up and attempting to qualify.  For Abbey D’Agostino though, she chose to assist Niki Hamblin, encouraging and helping her to get up and keep racing.  As the race went on, it became apparent Abbey D’Agostino was severely injured and Nikki Hamblin returns the favor, assisting and encouraging Abbey to the finish.  D’Agostino placed last in her qualifying heat, but in reality, she placed first in the eyes of the world.  No one will remember who placed first in that race in the weeks and months ahead, but they will remember the selflessness she showed toward her fellow competitor.

In the spiritual life, this principal means we put others first and die to ourselves.  In so doing, we become last, so others might be first.  Abbey said God prepared her heart for that moment, because what she did went against all of her instincts.  She chose to be last rather than first.  She lived this gospel principle.


On Sunday evening, the Olympics ceremoniously extinguished the Olympic Flame, marking an end to the quadrennial event which gathered many nations for a single purpose.  The lessons gleaned from the Olympic games, however, continues for the rest of our life as we run the race of the spiritual life.  The Olympians help us realize to whom the glory belongs.  Whatever accomplishments we have in this life, we know are gifts from our God and moments to magnify His greatness.  The example of their lives testify to the necessity of discipline in order to win.  And the courageous example of Abbey D’Agostino shows the truth in the reality the last will be first.  If we strive to live these spiritual principles in our life, we will compete well, and in the end, hope to win the gold—eternal life.

image: lazyllama / Shutterstock.com

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Fr. Edward Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay in June 2015, and is an internationally recognized Marian theologian, writer, speaker, and radio personality. Author of the best-selling books, A Lenten Journey with Mother MaryA Heart Like Mary’s and A Rosary Litany, he has also written a prayer book for the only American-approved Marian apparition received by Adele Brise in 1859 in Champion, Wisconsin. He currently serves as Administrator of two rural Wisconsin parishes. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at the handle @FrEdwardLooney.

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