Young athletes' prayer magnets for Kenya and inspiration for all ages

Kenya's Beatrice Chepkoech (right) and Bahrain's Winfred Mutile Yavi compete during Women's 3000m Steeplechase Final at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 in Budapest, Hungary on Aug 27, 2023. [Xinhua]

I choke every time a Kenyan athlete – often a youngster – mounts the podium for the medal presentation ceremony in an international event. In recognition of their achievement, the national anthem reverberates across the world.

For those few minutes, the world – in a bubble of electric athletic emotion – joins in Kenya’s national hymn. For their athletic prowess, these young people more frequently than anyone else, assemble the world to pray with Kenya.

That millions of people in the world follow the events on television and social media platforms means also that young people, in their golden ways, assemble the most populous prayer moments for Kenya. This is significant. As they lag behind in races, our hearts lag with them. As they begin to gain ground, our hearts warm up with them. As they tear past the competition to the finishing line, our hearts beam with them. As they do a jig of victory, our hearts dance too. Whole cities go wild for hours – even days – when their youngsters win. When they lose, moods go down with them. Their win is real party and their loss a full dose of pain. They are either serving shots in the arm or heartbreaks!

For some reason, we forget that these flag carriers are mostly teenagers and young adults. Clearly, their emotional impact is anything but young! To their credit, their passion is not a government job or a corporate assignment. It is a personal task of passion that attracts partnership that has them carrying the reputation of their country on their shoulders.  

As we cheer them, it is not out of the sense that they are our children. We bring to the moment a personal longing to win. When they win, we do. Somehow the reality that they are youngsters recedes and their identity as dream carriers dominates. When their runs push us to the edges of our seats, even cause us to unconsciously stand up with hands over our heads, we are often cheering our own hopes. We personalise their win and turn it into ours. Being happy for the winners is smudged with our personal happiness! Congratulating them is mixed up with congratulating ourselves. The language is “we” won. We feel accomplished.

Young athletes disapprove the narrative perpetuated by older generations that the youth are lost. The tone of this ‘youth-are-lost’ narrative implies that the youth as lost beyond finding. But the young achievers who have positioned themselves as national assets challenge this abandonment attitude. Their honourable accomplishments are prophetic statements urging parents and guardians to go and seek the lost.

These medal-winning youths also push back against their peers who perpetuate the image of young people as wild, carefree and with an unexplained expectation that the world should entertain them. When some youngsters are showing off their vaping skills in clubs, others are experimenting on breaking athletic records on tracks. Such are evangelists of constructive ambition, discipline, excellence, responsibility and exemplariness. That they have turned talent into enterprise speaks to the employment-dependency syndrome.  

The work ethic the young athletes have cultivated is cross-generationally enviable and to be emulated. They rise early while others pride in sleeping. Their eating is aligned to the prize they have in view. They must pass the authenticity test for the medals to stand. They are gracious in victory just as they are in loss. Even the best of them have a coach. In a world dominated by pride, such humility is counter-cultural.

Many embed an active spirituality in and outside the field. They lift up their eyes and hands to the heavens. Even with millions watching them, they do not hold back the sign of the cross or shy away from kneeling with foreheads to the ground. Their reflex spiritual gestures tell of a tapping into God’s power.

Recently, Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old American who won the US Open said, “I don’t pray for results… I just ask that I get the strength to give it my all. Whatever happens, happens. I’m so blessed in this life. I’m just thankful for this moment. I don’t have any words for it, to be honest.” To follow the secularising fad that spirituality is old and to be disregarded is countered by the Gauffs of this generation who are actively tapping into God’s power – with results.

Paul the apostle borrows athletic imagery to talk about spiritual discipline. Athletic ductility is associated with youthfulness. He tells of how he beats his body to submission. He is a conduit of skill and a carrier of spirit. It takes “beating his body” to silence passions that do not enslave, distract and deny him the end goal. To let the body have all it wants is to forget the prize. It is when the body is tamed that the crown comes into view. Disqualification is a hovering threat, but it is cured by discipline. The muscle of discipline must be developed to a topmost form because it is the value that keeps a winning streak. Paul does not waste his energy on releases that have no return. Energy expenditure must have calibrated value. Ability is an asset that should not be wasted.

Of note is how Paul elevates the spiritual prize of attaining God’s approval by ranking it higher than the earthly silverware, “They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable.” God pleasers should be more intense than gold chasers. This prize ranking implies that gold chasers should learn from God chasers. Practices towards godliness should be the learning point for the gold-pursuing discipline. Christians who want all God has to offer without putting in any work contradict the God and gold ranking. They anticipate the prize money without any workouts!  

Paul positions the gym of righteousness as a demonstrative exhibit of wisdom for the earthly athlete. World beater Faith Kipyegon should keep-on-going, because of a priest’s inspiration. 100m speedster Ferdinand Omanyala should study a nun’s life and exclaim “Oh manual!”. 800m champion Mary Moraa should locate her morale in a Christian’s testimony. The Diamond League should be a shadow of the Lord’s league.  

But as things are, the discipline of the young athletes must preach to an undisciplined church, as old as it is. The gold-chasers must challenge the God-chasers until they realise the elevated worth of their prize. As the young winners keep winning, their stories may just serve as a parable to a church that needs to rebuild its muscle to return to an exemplary winning form.

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