The next two weeks of Olympic coverage will feature paeans of praise for champions mixed with reportage (such as in our cover story) of the pain among those who fall short. But the larger question, in cultures such as ours that stress immediate gratification, is whether the discipline involved in seeking sports excellence makes winners out of even those who lose.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, no slouches at self-pleasuring, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things," and noted that he had to do the same: "I discipline my body and keep it under control." The real goal of training is character formation, not winning a wreath in ancient times or a gold medal at present: It's folly to lust after the perishable rather than to love the imperishable.
All of us can point to athletes who do not exercise self-control. Paul wrote to Timothy of the ideal-"An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules"-but many athletes cheat. Some have so much natural talent or speed that for a time they can get by without working hard to maximize their gifts. Others show self-control on the field but lawless behavior off it.
Since I was cut from my sixth-grade baseball team, I can't talk from personal experience about what sports can do for a person. But I have interviewed lots of major-league baseball players and managers since 1993, and as the Olympics approached I reviewed notes from those conversations concerning the importance of self-discipline in sports.
My favorite player interviewee, Cal Ripken Jr., had intelligent things to say both times we talked during spring training, in 1993 and 2000: "From the fans' perspective there's a lot of pressure, but from the players' situation there should not be, if you've done your work. No matter what situation arises, if you've done your work, it's something you've done and thought about many times before. You position yourself and you take every at-bat the same way."
Sitting in the locker room after a workout, Mr. Ripken mused on the importance of diligence: "What I've done today will be crucial in September. To have a successful at-bat you have to do certain things the same way whether nothing's on the line or everything's on the line. . . . You work hard not to think about the specialness of those tough situations, because that just puts more pressure on yourself. Instead, you keep telling yourself, 'I've done this thousands of times before. I've done my work.'"
Another thoughtful player, first baseman Will Clark, impressed me in 1994 by going through a hard regular workout and then fielding over 100 ground balls to his right so he could take a split-second off his pivot when throwing back to a pitcher covering first base. Mr. Clark spoke of that physical discipline and also a mental routine: "Much of the game comes down to anticipating. When a player hits a double, he's not supposed to stand on second base congratulating himself," but should be thinking about what he'll do if the next batter hits a single: "He needs to remember who each outfielder is, what kind of arm he has-and he needs to do that thinking before the ball is hit. It's discipline, it's character."
Perhaps the best manager in baseball now is Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals, and one reason his team is in first place is that players have taken to heart what he said during our conversation in 2000 (and has probably been saying week after week): "If you've just hit a home run, the worst thing you can do is go for a home run next time. They're hard to come by. Instead, do the little things . . . aim for a series of small successes. Discipline is key."
My favorite manager was Johnny Oates of the Baltimore Orioles and then the Texas Rangers, who continued to praise God even after learning last year that he has inoperable brain cancer. In interviews seven years apart he delivered a consistent message: "I tell players-be aggressive . . . but if we lose, go look at yourself in the mirror. If you did everything you could, go home and get a good night's rest. If not, remember what you did wrong, then go home and rest."
That's baseball, which only recently became part of the Olympics, but the same lessons apply in other sports we'll be watching over the next two weeks, and life itself. Work hard. Discipline body and mind. And Christians like Mr. Oates know: Rest in the Lord. Glorify Him. Enjoy Him forever, beginning right now.