An excellent example of journalism properly covering the issue of religion in an athlete's life is this Runner's World profile of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall. I know many out there are skeptical when super rich athletes and coaches say something about how they thank the Lord for this or that or give God the honor, but bear with me because this story is about none of those things. Long distance runners are rarely rich because of their athletic skill. The training is rigorous and anything but glamorous. How often have you watched long-distance running on television? Some may ask why anyone would bother to be a long-distance runner?
For some answers, check out Hall's story which is more than deserving of the 5,800-plus words Michael Perry wrote in the article titled "The Power and the Glory."
"My parents were strong Christians," he continues. "I definitely believed, but I wasn't really strongly pursuing my faith. I was playing baseball, basketball, football--I was into, like, the cool crowd at school. And then one day traveling down the mountain to a basketball game, I got this random--I describe it as a vision, but you could call it an idea, whatever--this thing pops into my mind where I am looking out at Big Bear Lake, and I think, well, it would be a great thing for me to try and run around that."
It's tough to put this in context now, what with the mind-bending marathon times in the books and Beijing right around the corner. But Hall wants you to understand that the power of the vision lay partially in the fact that he was not being asked to do something to which he seemed naturally inclined. "I never really had any interest in running. Like, in middle school, whenever they made us run the mile, I'd complain just like everyone else. But at that moment it became something that was very captivating - it really grabbed me."
By now, of course, the story about the kid who circumnavigated Big Bear Lake in basketball shoes has become central to the Ryan Hall legend. He ran the route with his father, Mickey. Mickey says they made one stop in 15 miles, and he knew already the boy had something special. The kid was worn out at the end, but back home while unlacing his shoes, Ryan says he too knew this was more than a one-off stunt. "At that point, the trajectory of my life completely changed. All of a sudden I stopped doing baseball, basketball, and football, and started running full time." And somewhere out on that loop, something else alchemized: "It was at that point that Jesus really became my best friend. That's when our relationship took off...and it was a direct result of him bringing running into my life."
At Summit Christian Fellowship, the people are praying. The highest profile congregant has yet to present--he is re-creating that famous day for the cameras--but the flock understands what might be keeping him. After all, they are the ones who hung the banner. They know: God told Ryan to run.
Surely our feelings regarding athletes who choose to bring their faith to the field reflect the state of our own souls. Fellow believers will likely rejoice at God's word made manifest in the form of peak performance; nonbelievers will dismiss the testimony at best, deride it at worst. Ryan Hall believes he was chosen by God to run for God. One of Hall's favorite Bible verses--the one he scribbled on the autographed poster just inside the door of the Teddy Bear Restaurant in Big Bear Lake--is from the book of Isaiah. Those who wait on the Lord, will run and not get tired. The Lord has taught Hall not to overlook that key word: wait. The divine plan doesn't always run parallel to mortal hopes and dreams.
From what I can tell, there has been little news coverage of Ryan Hall leading up to this month's Olympics. If there is coverage though, this would be one of those cases where a journalist would go astray in failing to ask or mention the role faith has played in his life. The same should go for broadcast commentators (if there are any) who cover his race.
Just how often do you see a runner say he wants to finish second place in the lead of a magazine article about his running career?
Ryan Hall will be happy with second place.
In his prayers, he thinks of entering Heaven, and imagines running through the gates as if into a great stadium filled with people raising a joyful noise. He hopes to be just off the shoulder of the leader, but he won't attempt a late kick. "The goal of my life," he says, "is just to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as closely as I can."
Bob Myers of The Boar's Head Tavern says that this article "is the most extensive and in depth feature on a Christian athlete" he can remember. I agree with Myers when he says it's hard not to be a fan of Hall after reading this article.