During the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, the camera panned to a group of no-name athletes from a nation that few could find on a map. One young man burst into tears as he entered the stadium. As he wiped away the tears and tried to compose himself, the commentator made a remark that captures the essence of that moment.
“Look at him… for most of these athletes, this is their Olympic experience…just getting to this point…enduring what they had to endure… to enter this stadium with the world looking on.”
Like millions around the world, I wondered who it was that would be given the singular honor to receive the torch, and light the cauldron to begin the games. Who could forget the surprise when Mohammed Ali emerged and fought through the tremors of Parkinson’s to hold the torch aloft and light the fire.
Everyone expected that it would be Pele’ an Argentinian… the greatest name associated with the game of soccer. For health reasons, he declined that honor just before the opening ceremony. Who would they choose? If I was to take a straw poll, I am certain that no one would have guessed, nor been able to name the man they picked to light the flame.
Vanderlei de Lima. You know…Vanderlei de Lima. Of course no one remembers that name. Two reasons come to mind. He is no Pele’ or Ali. And second, he lost the gold in his event.
“Alone in his apartment in south London, a 69-year-old man named Neil Horan watched a middle-of-the night broadcast of the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics. Like other viewers, he wondered which Brazilian would get the honour of lighting the Olympic caldron. And when he saw that it would be Vanderlei de Lima, best known for being accosted by a spectator while leading the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens, Greece, he was aghast.”
New York Times columnist John Branch sums up the incident
It was Horan who (at the 2004 Olympics) jumped onto the course near the 35-km mark and shoved de Lima into the crowd in Athens — “Put him aside like a rugby tackle,” he recalled in a phone conversation Saturday — and was blamed for de Lima finishing third.
“When I actually saw him with my own eyes, I really got angry,” Horan said. “I look at Vanderlei, and I think, ‘You would be nowhere near the star if not for me.’”
Horan a defrocked Catholic Priest had disrupted other sporting events. In 2003, laicized by the Roman Catholic Church and an outspoken believer that the end of the world was coming, Horan interrupted the British Grand Prix by running onto the racetrack, forcing cars to swerve past him.1
So right at a crucial point in the race of his life, an unsuspecting marathon runner is knocked down by a religious fanatic and loses the Gold Medal. Now, twelve years later, he is chosen to light the cauldron in Rio.
A few days after this strange turn of events, I attended the dedication of my newest grandchild, Camden Jonathan Riddle. My daughter Hannah and her husband Jonathan stood before a large congregation as Camden’s smile was flashed on the huge screen. Hannah read a prayer that she composed for the occasion. She prayed that he would be a “world changer” in his generation.
On the way out of church I just happened to see a man who (later that week) was about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I happened to hear his acceptance speech. He freely acknowledged that it was the grace of God in his life that afforded him the coaching career he enjoyed.
I started to see a theme emerging when (at week’s end) I tried to contact my friend, Pastor Larry Johnson who is in the battle of his life due to a brain tumor. Larry and I have been in touch every week since we were ordained together into public ministry in 1978. He is having great difficulty in speaking but there is absolutely no doubt that he is has all his mental capacity, but his speech has been damaged by the growing tumor.
The enemy of our souls has no hesitation when it comes to impeding the progress toward the goal for those who name the Name of Jesus. In the case of the marathon racer, it was a defrocked priest whose twisted mind convinced him that the was actually serving God by attacking the runner in the midst of his race.
In the case of the NFL coach it was the long standing tension of who would be the first African American head coach. On more than one occasion, he spoke frankly about the setbacks and disappointments he had to endure along the way to receiving his Super Bowl ring.
In the case of Baby Camden, I was struck by the fact that in his lifetime he will most probably face challenges we can’t even imagine as he walks with Jesus in an age of lawlessness. I prayed for him.
Finally, I thought of Pastor Larry. He has served the Lord faithfully for over forty years. He has labored in relative obscurity. His columns appear in a newspaper that reaches thousands. His work as chaplain to his local police department cannot be measured for its efficacy in the eyes of God. His congregation would to a man say that he prepared to preach each week as if he was addressing thousands.
At a time only know to our Lord, each of these individuals will enter into the arena surrounded, and cheered on by a great cloud of witnesses. Van der lei Lima will (if he has walked with God) will have the satisfaction that the challenges in his race were not hidden from the Lord; neither was the injustice of the attack that thwarted him unnoticed by those whose races are long over.
Camden will enter, Lord willing, to experience the satisfaction of hearing his Lord say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter into the rest of thy Lord.” For Pastor Larry, the battle is on. The Apostle Paul is looking on… as are Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon and Bob and Shirley his beloved parents. I can hear them. “The Lord is your portion… you are going to make it!”
Those entering the stadium in Rio were aptly called contenders. For some who read this… it is time to get up and get back into the race. For others, it is time to find your help in the Name of the Lord. For us all, it is time to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”