Can faith help an Olympian?

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY, August 6, 2012

Is it crazy for an Olympian to claim that God directs his training regimen? You’d think so from reactions to the much-publicized Christian piety of U.S. Olympic marathon contender Ryan Hall — his recent assertion, in particular, that God is his coach.

Commented one Huffington Post reader beneath an article on the role of faith in Hall’s training for this Sunday’s race: “I hope Ryan gets the medication he needs in a timely way.”

Thanks to Hall’s growing notoriety, and to public fascination with other young evangelical sports figures such as football icon Tim Tebow and basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, debates are breaking out anew whether an athlete can pray his way to a gold medal or championship. Let this skeptic suggest an answer that might surprise you.

Yes, prayer can help an athlete succeed — just not in the way in which the issue is typically conceived.

Over recent decades, as evangelical Christianity has become an increasingly conspicuous feature of the sports world, Christians, comedians, and Internet and media loudmouths have waged an ongoing argument about the appropriateness — and, for that matter, the sanity — of athletes openly claiming a big role for God in their sports endeavors.

Exhibit A in trend

Hall has become the latest Exhibit A following extensive media coverage that has found him speaking openly and boldly about God’s part in his marathon running. A recent profile in TheNew York Times probed Hall’s ideas about faith and running with unusual depth and nuance. But what stood out in the headline and the Internet sensationalizing that followed was Hall’s blunt assertion that God is his coach. Last year, Hall — who does not have a human coach — went so far as to write “God” on a race form that asked for the name of his coach, and when an official pushed him to name a real person, he responded: “He is a real person.”

This is the kind of thing that gets the wisecrackers going. Yet when you hear Hall out on the matter and think about the deep and subtle ways believers often conceive of their “communications” with God — aka prayer — you see there is more to it than child-like belief in God changing the flight of a ball or giving a runner an extra push.

Hall, for example, says his faith allows him to run with freedom and joy. As his faith has deepened, he says, his self-worth has become less dependent on his running results, and with that has come an easing of the pressure he once felt. It’s as if he used to run with a burden on his back; now, he runs lighter.

Marv Fremerman, a performance-enhancement consultant (and not an evangelical Christian), told me he is convinced that athletes perform closest to their potential when their lives are in harmony. “Athletes who are unhappy, even angry, and whose lives are in disharmony will not perform anywhere near their skill levels,” Fremerman says. “When athletes have strong religious beliefs, it enhances their feelings of self-worth and therefore enhances their performance in their sport.”

For some athletes, this harmony and self-worth can come from meditating, a strong support network, innate confidence, faith in their training and talent. For many of the athletes competing in these Olympics and other high-profile sports competitions, it comes from prayer and religious faith — their relationship with the god of their beliefs.

Prayer a tricky thing

Of course, prayer can be a tricky thing.

One of evangelical Christendom’s leading teachers on prayer is Charles Stanley, who has a new book coming out on the subject next month titled The Ultimate Conversation. Stanley makes some wise points that are likely to disappoint someone hoping that the right prayer technique will get him that new job, that million dollars, that Olympic gold. So, too, might Stanley’s teachings frustrate someone looking for an example of blatant silliness that will confirm their worst ideas about religious people.

God sometimes says “no,” Stanley writes on his InTouch Ministries website. “He may want to deal with sin or misplaced priorities. Or he may have something more important in store for us.”

Stanley teaches Christians that God will indeed answer their prayers, but that what God gives might not be exactly what the petitioner had in mind. To cite one rather large example, Stanley points out that the messiah who came 2,000 years ago in the Christian understanding was not the political messiah the Jews were expecting — not a savior king who would kick out the Romans — but a messiah of an entirely different sort.

Can prayer change things in this world?

Even this skeptic will concede that it can — but not in the sense that it will suddenly clear out a traffic jam making you late for work, or bring your fields that much-needed rain.

What sincere and meditative prayer can change is a person’s interior world; from that, some exterior change just might happen, too.

Or, to put it another way, believers indeed can find their prayers coming true, and often do receive the desires of their heart. But that’s because their heart has changed, right along with their desires.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of Contributors. He is the author of the book Onward Christian Athletes on Christianity in sports.

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