A Nike commercial once urged viewers: “Listen, if you can run a mile, run a race. You know what, run a marathon. Outrun a movie star. If you can play table tennis, serve like that. Beat the champs. Beat her mentor… beat Serena [Williams].”
The subtext of these words characterizes all athletic achievements: once you have achieved something great, achieve something greater. Be better, be the best. There is always another record to break, race to win and year to dominate a championship.
This endless pursuit of achievement seems to be built into the nature of athletic competition, and even integral to the very essence of humanity. It motivated Achilleus and Agamemnon to be aristos, “the best,” and it motivates Olympians to compete for gold medal after gold medal. Competitive athletics reveal that men intricately want to supersede their own humanity.
The insatiability we find in athletics reminds me of the words of C.S. Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Lewis speaks here from the basic premise that our desires were made by God to be satisfied. The desire to defy the limits of our own humanity, which we see in the pursuit of athletic achievement, is therefore also meant to be satisfied. And since our own humanity can’t fulfill that desire, Lewis points us to God.
The ultimate fulfillment of the human desire to be the best is the entirety of the Christian project. It is the mystery underlying the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and the second coming: transformation. Instead of destroying our nature, God wants to perfect us into Himself. We desire to be more than human because our humanity is intended to be transcended.
I do not mean to cast athletic competition as a futile pursuit of transcendence or belittle the achievements of great athletes. Rather, I think that this understanding of athletic competition gives us all the more reason to achieve great things. Let’s outdo our own greatest achievements and exceed the limits of our own humanity because we were not made for this world in the first place.