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What is an athlete? This is a question I have been thinking a lot about these last few weeks, mainly because it is a question that a lot of people are raising. Every year it seems, without fail, after Lance Armstrong claims another Tour de France victory, the debate rages on whether or not cycling is a sport, and if Lance is a great athlete, or one of the greatest athletes ever. And you get those couch potato guys calling in on the radio station on the afternoon drive home saying, “I can ride a bike. How hard is it to ride a bike?” Which makes me want to reach through the phone and….then my better Christian self gets a hold of me instead. Yeah, I can ride a bike too. I can ride my beach cruiser like 3 miles to the grocery store and back in an hour. I’m not riding for three straight weeks, over 21 stages, for thousands of miles, uphill, through the French mountains, with crazy fans yelling and screaming at me. Oh yeah…then there are the hundreds of bikers you are competing against, sometimes up to speeds of 60 plus miles an hour, downhill, in the rain. Yeah buddy, I’m sure you can ride a bike!

Athletics is a broad thing, and it is unfair at times to try and compare. Is Tiger Woods the greatest golfer ever? Well, I don’t know, but he’s the best we have now? Would the 1962 Yankees beat the 2000 Yankees? Could Michael Jordan in his prime defeat Magic Johnson in his prime? And on and on and on it goes, with really no definitive answer. It’s good stuff for armchair quarterbacks and fanstasy leaguers, but it seems to be a waste of time. Can’t we just appreciate an athlete, or a sport for what it is, without comparison?

Full disclosure: I’m about as amateur an athlete as you can get. I grew up playing soccer, and in high school I switched over to football and track. Your pretty traditional sports. I can tell you from some experience what I think is a hard sport, event, or what a great athlete looks like.

I think the 400 Meter Sprint is one of the hardest sporting events out there. It isn’t just about speed, but about calculation, endurance, stamina, focus and mental clarity. Add hurdles to that, and wow!

I think the 800 meters is nuts. Two times around a track at sprint speed. This is the type of event that your average football player says, I can do that. Yeah right. Maybe in about 5 minutes time.

I think a quarterback, moving a team down a field in less than two minutes takes skill, speed, determination.

I think Pele taking the soccer ball from one goal to the other by himself is something only he could do. Yeah I know…little Johnny did that in his 3-6 age bracket in the AYSO.

I think Michael Jordan had the amazing combination of mental prowess, physical domination, and great finesse.

And I think Lance Armstrong, winning the tour for 7 straight years, after beating back cancer is unbelievable. I am a traditional sports kind of guy. But I have so much respect for the amount of physical strength, and mental capabilities that goes into this event.

So we can go on and on. It is, it isn’t a sport. He is, he isn’t a great athlete. But why? Why compare? It is what it is? He is a tremendous athlete, and I am now a fan of a sport I was not a fan of before.

We are surrounded in a culture that is obsessed with athletics, training, exercise, etc. This is nothing new, and athletics has always been a great visual analogy for our lives, especially our spiritual lives. The Greek word for athlete, athleo, appears in II Timothy 2:5, where Paul says, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” Paul, using the visual imagery of the day of an athlete competing in a contest, probably in an arena. In I Timothy 4:7-8, Paul uses the Greek word gumnasia, where we get our word gymnasium. “rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Something for me to keep in mind, especially when I tend to make sure I get in my workout at the gym, even if it means skipping my Bible reading. Yikes.

In I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul uses lots of imagery from the Olympic games when he says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. There I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lets possibly after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”

I think sports is a great thing, and I hope to be able to be active to a very old age. But sports is not just about physical prowess, strength, speed, coordination, or luck. It is a combination of many things, and a great athlete is someone who embodies all facets of athleticism. I think this is why I was so impressed with Lance Armstrong, his Discovery Team, and the Tour De France, overall.

I know they are out there, but I am hard pressed to find a sport, or an event, that is more about multi-faceted athleticism than this event. The self-control, the servant-slave mentality, which is the role of the domestique, that word can preach alone for hours. The combination of sheer strength, stamina, mental toughness, clarity, teamwork, community, etc. Oh, and did I mention the sheer selflessness of team members…yeah, that’s hard to find in some sports.

Watching the Tour De France reminded me a lot, and taught me a lot about Christian community. Too bad that it was cycling that was teaching me things, and not Christian community. But I guess things have not changed. If the Apostle Paul was blogging in 2005, he would probably draw on the Tour De France as a major sporting analogy that compares to our Christian lives.

Did you learn anything by watching the tour? Has it taught anything to you about the Christian faith? Or is cycling just not a sport, and Lance just not an athlete? I mean…you too can ride a bike, right? How hard is that?