Advertisement - story continues below
The clearest contrast I have yet seen drawn between excellence and perfection is in the film, When the Game Stands Tall. The story of coach Bob Ladoceur and the De La Salle High School football team begins in the aftermath of their unmatched 151-game winning streak.
The film is able to focus more on the character of the coach and team in recovery from a stunning defeat instead of a mere charmed march to perpetual victory. The high point of the odyssey comes when star running back Chris Ryan takes a knee after tying the state record for touchdowns scored rushing. He explains the team is more important than his personal glory. His vision of belonging to and leading a community of committed and excellent athletes trumps his individual achievement at the expense of those who propelled him.
A story of redemption — even resurrection — in the face of disappointment bordering on existential despair is far more uplifting to people like us, caught in the web of an existence that never seems to break into the clear, than a story of glory to glory. Add to that the fact this is a sports story — competitive sports are iconic for the highs and lows of human life; we relate, we dream, we pull, we participate with the characters on a fundamental level – and it doesn’t get much better.
Advertisement - story continues below
It’s only a movie, we may say. The reality is that Chris Ryan is one character in this true story made solely from imagination. Really real is Australian Chloe Esposito receiving her Olympic gold medal after rallying from seventh place to finish first in the last round of the Pentathlon in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She wept from humility and love of country, not of self.
Just as real are Australian swimmers Charlotte and Bronte Campbell in defeat and victory, and American divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson before and after taking their silver medals, calling out their faith in the Christ who propelled them. Michael Phelps, on medal the platform, gave glory to the God who saved him from depression and suicide, at the same time courageously calling out the drug cheaters who cheapen the games in their lust for an unreal-through-chemistry perfection.
All risked the kind of attacks flung at Gold medalist Mack Horton for speaking politically incorrect truth about doping on a worldwide stage. They all chose excellence over perfection.
Advertisement – story continues below
The recently concluded Olympics present a real-time case study in contrast between pursuit of perfection and effort toward excellence. Perfection is actually a rather narrow gauge of achievement — breaking a world record, for example, and performing at that level consistently enough to become a model for reaching and dancing atop a pinnacle in one’s discipline of choice. The one who approaches or achieves it can, and usually does, claim credit for doing what few others have done and for doing it through a body or brain that is actually God’s gift rather than mere fruit of hard work and determination.
Don’t get me wrong. Nobody becomes a Michael Phelps or a Usain Bolt by sitting on their hands. They work with world class dedication to achieve all that is in their bodies by gifting. But their behavior offers clarity as to whether they seek excellence or mere perfection.
Excellence is an across-the-board approach to life that is perfected only in submission to the God Who gives gifts and yet perfects those gifts in terms of human weakness rather than strength — at least according to 2 Corinthians 12:9 and at most in terms any observer with eyes to see can witness. Excellence is much broader and harder to nail down, yet it is ultimately life giving while perfection is ultimately life threatening.
Advertisement - story continues below
Phelps is the fastest swimmer of all time (for now) while Usain Bolt is the fastest runner (for now). Phelps pursued perfection for much of his career and, despite success others can only envy, his quest ended in bondage to drugs and attempts at suicide, as it has for so many high-performance and world-class athletes. The problem is what to do with a life after having climbed Everest and Phelps is the first to say giving his life to Christ is what saved and resurrected his. Bolt remains full of himself alone, as evidenced by his persistent showboating, explicitly claiming himself as the greatest.
It is not all about believing Jesus Christ is the Savior and Source of authentic human life, though I would argue that as the beginning. Bolt is as much a believer as Phelps, demonstrated by crossing himself before every race. But the pursuit of excellence is deeper than mere belief. It is a life of action determined to become all one human can be; it just so happens this can only occur with Christ as both model and manufacturer of that human being.
Excellence transcends perfection as three dimensions transcend one. It is revealed in defeat and victory because it has a larger view of victory than simple success against competitors. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of athletics at their highest altitude, although it is just as real in baking cakes or cleaning toilets if that is one’s calling in life.
The corollary to this truth is also its consequence. The one who seeks perfection alone is liable to revelation as a fool. The coaches who ripped the Campbell sisters as having insufficient courage to calm down and win their 50-meter races in the Olympic pool were petty and self-centered. But when it was revealed that a flaw in the pool design — the same flaw with the same result in a pool built by the same company found in the 2012 Barcelona games — actually slowed the girls in the outer lanes and robbed them of victory, their backstabbing coaches looked like the morons they are.
Ryan Lochte is the most medals-decorated American swimmer after Phelps. Unlike Phelps, he pursues perfection alone, and apparently thinks he has achieved it. When he engaged in drunken excess in Rio and busted up a facility, he lied about having been robbed at gunpoint. He then fled home rather than face the music he created, leaving his teammates to face arrest and heavy fines.
Now that his craven and abusive side is revealed, his fame becomes the kind nobody wants.
Of course, Lochte — and the coaches and the strippers and the showboaters — can repent. Any of them can decide to seek excellence over perfection just as Phelps has done. As sports icons, the fruit of their repentance will be more spectacular, and more personally satisfying, than the idols they worshipped before.
Pierre De Coubertine understood this well when he founded the modern Olympic Games. He sought a chance to encourage contenders who demonstrated academic achievement, physical prowess and character. He set up world-class competitive meetings each four years intending toward excellence. The medal bearing his name is considered a greater achievement than the gold; it was awarded this year for only the 17th time in the past 125 years.
New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino shared the award this year. Neither won their race — the 5,000 meter run — but they did win their quest for excellence.
During the semifinals, Hamblin stumbled and fell, crashing into D’Agostino and dropping her as well. Leaping to her feet uninjured, Hamblin refused to continue the race until D’Agostino took off again. When it became clear the American was too badly injured to continue, her opponent remained with her until a wheelchair came to bear her off the track.
This kind of sportsmanship is impossible from inside the lust for perfection. D’Agostino gave explicit credit to the Spirit of God in her and both women expressed the purpose of the games as De Coubertine envisioned them. This is why they share his priceless medal in 2016.
The 2016 Olympics were notable for the doping and general corruption that always seeks to divert excellence into mere perfection; the referee cheating in the final soccer shootout between Australia and Brazil comes to mind as the world observed it on worldwide television. But the games were also notable for more and greater revelations of excellence than ever before in this writer’s memory.
I am left with hope for sport to become what it was created by God to become because of the courage and humility of athletes from many nations.
And this is no movie. It is real. It is really real.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.