Coached by God? NYT profiles Olympic runner

According to an in-depth story in ESPN the Magazine, the Summer Olympics are one big sex party — with 100,000 condoms ordered to keep up with all the athlete shenanigans expected in London.

With the provocative headline "Will you still medal in the morning?" that 3,200-word feature managed to steer entirely clear of any questions of values, morals or — dare we say — religion related to all the bedroom activity expected in the Olympic Village. That's probably not surprising, given that the story appeared in the magazine's Body Issue.

Just as I was lamenting the ESPN piece, a GetReligion reader submitted a link to an even longer Olympic story — this one published by The New York Times and running more than 5,600 words. (You read that right: 5,600 words! No word on whether this dead-tree story required the clearing of an extra forest.)

The Times profiles Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall (whose faith has received in-depth treatment before). The top of the story:

REDDING, Calif. — Ryan Hall rocked slightly, palms up, closing his eyes or singing softly to lyrics projected on giant screens at the evangelical Bethel Church. Other worshipers jubilantly raised their arms and swayed and jumped in the aisles. A band played onstage and a woman waved a fabric flag like a rhythmic gymnast.

Thin and blond and boyish at 29 — flight attendants still asked his age when he sat in an exit row — Hall wore jeans and a blue shirt labeled with the shoe company that sponsored his running. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, he ran a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes 58 seconds. No other American has run faster.

The Boston course is not certified for record purposes because of its drop in elevation and its layout. Still, of the29 fastest marathon performances in 2011, Hall’s was the only one by a runner from a country other than Kenya or Ethiopia. His next marathon will come Aug. 12 at the London Olympics. On a Sunday in March, Hall firmly believed he could challenge the East Africans for a gold medal.

“Light a fire in me for the whole world to see,” he sang.

I'm not a big fan of that lede. To me, it seemed like pretty boilerplate stuff for an evangelical church, especially considering the exceptional material that characterizes most of the piece.

But overall, the writer, Jere Longman, does an amazing job of taking religion seriously — of delving deep into the runner's faith, letting him explain what he believes in his own words and providing context and insight to help understand Hall's brand of Christianity.

Longman makes it clear up high that this story will "get religion":

Underpinning his running is his faith. The marathon is so isolating in its training, so impossibly fast at the elite level, so restricting to two performances a year for most top runners, that many athletes seek a purpose larger than themselves, something to believe in more than the numbing miles of roadwork. For some, it is their families or an escape from poverty. For others, it is their religion.

“If you run without any reason, you are just chasing the wind,” said Wesley Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion from Kenya.

During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Hall began singing praise to the Lord. Freestyling, he called it. Korir joined in.

“Come Lord Jesus, come,” the two runners sang as they ran. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”

After finishing second at the 2011 United States half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.

You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said.

“He is a real person,” Hall responded.

As the Times explores Hall's faith, it provides details on his church:

Bethel Church, formerly affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith, is a charismatic evangelical Christian fellowship with more than 3,000 congregants. It promotes a direct, personal relationship with an unconditionally loving God and what it calls supernatural signs and wonders. These include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings and miracles that are said by church officials to include the curing of cancer, regeneration of limbs, mending of broken bones and raising the dead.

For a writer seemingly so fluent in the language of the athlete's church, the description of Hall's church confused me. The Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith? That makes it sound like the Assemblies of God is the only Pentecostal faith, as if the two terms are interchangeable. Yet there are more than 60 Pentecostal denominations, according to the Religion Newswriters Association's online stylebook. In fact, the church still sounds Pentecostal to me, unless I'm missing something (and please feel free to tell me in the comments section if I am).

Later in the story, another reference tripped me up:

As part of the so-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement, Bethel Church subscribes to a relationship with God that is not distant but intimate. Through prayer, charismatic evangelicals train their minds to converse with God, not unlike athletes who train their bodies to run marathons. They speak to God and believe that he speaks to them in return.

So-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement? I found myself wanting to know more about the history and size of that (so-called) movement.

Those quibbles aside, the writer deserves major kudos for his brilliant attention to detail in relating Hall's faith. Consider this section, for example:

At Bethel Church, God’s presence is felt in a number of ways, including what is said to be the appearance of feathers from angels’ wings and the manifestation of what is called a “glory cloud.”

Hall said he and his wife had experienced a glory cloud on New Year’s night, likening the phenomenon to fireflies or the flashing of tiny fireworks. Others say it resembles gold dust. He had seen a YouTube version of the glory cloud and was somewhat skeptical, believing that it might be simply a cascade of dust from the ceiling of the church. His skepticism faded when he saw for himself.

“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”

There's much more — from Hall and other sources — that make this story a compelling read, for sports fans as well as readers interested in religion.

Check it out.

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