The 10,000-meter men’s speed-skating event at the Vancouver Olympics gave the record books an infamous historic “first.” Holland’s—and the world’s for that matter—most famous long-distance skater, Sven Kramer, appeared to have won another gold medal. But he skated into a tragic athletic catastrophe and uttered three searing words intended for his errant coach: “Are you stupid?” We have yet to hear a reasonable answer, but when it comes, the inference will be, “Yes, I’m stupid.” It’s not a matter of intelligence but rather a matter of attention.
In speed-skating, skaters remain in their own lane since they are racing against the clock. Everyone must skate the same distance, so the oval track requires a specific number of lane changes. As Kramer approached one of the straight sections on the 17th lap, he faltered in a moment of indecision. It appeared that he would stay in the outside lane, but he swung his right leg over the marker opting to go inside and sped on, flying past the finish line in record time. But instead of gaining another gold medal, he was disqualified from the race and sat dejectedly with nothing, obliged to watch the second-place Korean skater take his golden victory lap.
Kramer’s fleeting moment of lane change came on the yelled instructions of his coach, Gerald Kempers, who signaled from the sidelines. Kramer was reported to say after the race, “This is really an expensive mistake.” One reporter wrote, “It would have been an Olympic record, but now it is reduced to a historic footnote.” A distressed Dutch teammate declared that it was “all your bad dreams coming true.” While a Dutch teammate did advance to win the bronze, his victory was soured, and he said, “You don’t want to win a medal like this….”
And the coach is in big trouble as all Holland’s hopes were dashed. Someone suggested he might need the “witness protection program” when he returns home.
The mistake is indelibly etched in Kramer's memory and is indeed a pathetic Olympic footnote. More serious is the biblical warning of lost crowns in the spiritual race for kingdom rewards. In addition to salvation as a free gift, believers have personal credits for obtaining crowns in the race of life. “If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15)
Salvation is by faith, but rewards are from faithfulness—those necessary lane changes in the will of God. Our Coach never issues flawed instructions, but sin, distraction or indifference can sometimes garble the commands. There is never a problem with the Lord’s directions, but there is plenty wrong with our personal reception. Kramer obeyed his coach, who had it wrong. When we disobey our unerring Coach, we get it wrong and we “suffer loss.”
Scripture is often couched in athletic terms as in Hebrews 12:1-2. “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Even crowns that seem to be gained can be lost as Revelation 3:11 warns, “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.” And II John 8 says, “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.”
Believers need not only to finish the course but to finish it accurately, in the proper lane. We all know the race begins with birth and ends with either our death or the Lord’s coming. Between those benchmarks are countless decisions—lane changes we might say—that need the best coaching possible. That is available from the Lord through prayer, Bible study and sometimes wise counsel from godly people. The prophet Ezra said it well. “… that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21).
Olympians compete “to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (1 Cor. 9:25c).