Running the Race
July 1, 2003 - Jim Ryun grew up in Kansas and achieved national acclaim in track during high school. He went on to participate in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in 1968 in the 1500-meter run. He also held the world record in the mile, 1500-meter and 880-yard events. Shortly before the 1972 Olympics, Ryun and his wife, Anne, made commitments to Jesus Christ. Ryun talked recently with Decision about how his faith was tested and about his current career as a U.S. Congressman from Kansas.
by Jim Dailey
Q: You were the premier miler in the United States and in the world for many years. Describe your ascent in the running world and how you handled the publicity and the pressure that came with such acclaim.
A: I didn't handle it that well, and most of that is because I wasn't a Christian for the majority of my track career. The hard part was how to deal with the successes and the failures, which then I didn't know how to handle. The public has a thirst for success that is virtually unquenchable. When you are up, they love you; when you are down, they can't figure you out. At the same time, those experiences were part of God's getting my attention to the extent that He would help sort out what was important in life. I learned more from my failures than I did from my successes. It is certainly a lot more fun to have success—but at the same time, the failures get you off the track and give you a chance to reflect and to evaluate. When the failures came, so did questions about what this was all about. What was the purpose for which I was created? Eventually that would lead my wife, Anne, and me to become Christians. It was the beginning of a life for which I am very grateful.
Q: Tell us about the process God used to draw you and Anne to that faith in Christ.
A: I was a church person but not a Christian. I knew what it was to go to church but in that process never met the Lord Jesus Christ and became a Christian. I do remember, however, conversations at night with God about how things were not going very well. I assumed that if I was successful in sports, I would be happy. I would fall asleep at night praying about making an athletic team or some success in that sense. I would say, "God, if You'd allow me to do this, I'd really appreciate it." Obviously, what God wanted was for me to have a personal relationship with Him.
Thankfully, along the way, faithful Christians began witnessing to us. They began sharing about a relationship with Jesus Christ that was more than going to Sunday school. It was a living relationship in which you would learn God's ways and live His ways. You would have access to Him through prayer and through His Son, Jesus Christ. I had always heard that before in church but never fully understood it until our friends Bernie and Clara Taylor shared that with us. We prayed with some friends on May 18, 1972. We asked Jesus Christ to come into our lives, to change us, and to give us a purpose, a hope and a future. Fortunately, we both met the Lord on the same day. It was not an emotional decision. It was thought through, and it changed our lives.
Q: Your new life in Christ began only a few months before the 1972 Olympics in Munich—where, as the world watched, you fell in a preliminary race and failed to qualify. How devastating was that?
A: It shouldn't have been a difficult race. I was expected to qualify and, eventually, to win. I was coming around a curve with a lap and a quarter to go, and I bumped another runner or he bumped me—the facts are still uncertain. I fell, hit my head and was temporarily unconscious. I did get back up and finish, but it wasn't enough.
When I walked off the track, Anne had somehow gotten out of the stands. Only a few days prior, terrorists had come into the Olympic Village and had killed a number of athletes, so tensions and security were very high. Anne met me in the athletes' tunnel as I left the track. We embraced each other, prayed and asked God to help us. We committed to Him whatever was going to happen. We barely got our prayer finished when the media started asking questions.
Later, I asked an attorney how to write a petition. We sat down and together wrote out the petition. We submitted it—and were rejected by the International Olympic Committee. It was the first test for me as a young Christian.
Initially, I had asked an Olympic official about reinstatement, and his answer was, "Jim, this is an unfortunate situation. Why don't you come back in four years and try again?" I had spent years sacrificing to prepare for this race. I had two responses. On one hand I thought, "OK, let's walk away from this situation." I also thought, "Let's grab this guy by his tie and beat on him!" I chose the former, the side that was Christlike. Jesus was beginning to come alive in me.
As a young Christian, I was learning to turn the other cheek. I left that situation and did not say anything I regret. It began the process of learning how to forgive—to let Christ become the dominant figure in my life. It was a big struggle. When I would get a call from a reporter, I wanted to talk about what the Olympic official had done. But as time went on, I realized that I was digging up my past and taking up the garbage of anger and hurt and not leaving it with the Lord. I wanted to move on with a new life, which was letting Jesus Christ become the central figure in my life and growing as a Christian. It was one of the most difficult experiences that Anne and I had to face as young Christians, but it was the right thing to do.
Q: Lately, a number of periodicals have addressed the role that faith plays in President Bush's life. How does that affect the political climate in Washington?
A: It's great to have a person at the top of the leadership spectrum who has a relationship with the Lord. In a news magazine that featured the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia, there was a large photo of President Bush leading his staff in prayer and a comment that this was the way the president opened his staff meetings. That gave me great encouragement because it's one thing to talk about your faith publicly, but it's another in moments like that—when it's captured—that you really are living your faith. It encourages not only me, but I'm sure all the readers who saw the picture and the caption with it.
I am heartened to know that our president is a man who I believe has a legitimate walk with the Lord and has demonstrated that he needs God's direction and wisdom in everything he does. In the political arena, it's easy to make a politically correct decision, but is it the right thing to do? When you have leadership from the top demonstrating a desire for the right answers and for the right direction, that encourages everyone. Many of us have very, very hard decisions to make and want to do what we can to demonstrate that God is in the center of our decision-making process. That's an encouragement to me.
Q: Compromise is clearly a key component of most legislation. How do you balance your moral convictions with that political reality?
A: In my opinion, compromise is applicable when you are talking about, perhaps, a tax issue. Certainly, I'd like a larger tax reduction, but if it means you have to take a smaller one to get it passed, then I can accept that. But compromise is not something you can talk about when it comes down to a life issue, such as abortion. In that area, there is no compromise. It is life; we will fight for that. I take encouragement from stories of the lives of people like the English legislator William Wilberforce whom I have written about in my book, "Heroes Among Us." This story encourages me because after he became a Christian, he went to John Newton, a former slave-trader, and asked him if, as a Christian, he should leave the realm of politics and do something else. Newton's response was, "If you do, where will the moral voice of government be?" In other words, God calls us to different positions for such a time as this, and it is for us to stand and to have our strength and trust in the Lord and to be able to affect our culture. Wilberforce is a shining example of a man who was faced with great compromise but at the same time made the right decisions. As a result, he had an influence in bringing an end to slavery in the British empire. I have become concerned through the years with the adulation paid toward heroes of recent time who were perhaps famous because of something they have done in sports or because of wealth. In reality, a hero is someone who is self-sacrificing, who perhaps may have to give his life for a cause but who stands for the right kinds of ideals.
Q: How do you keep your faith fresh?
A: I'm a blessed man, first of all, to have a believing wife, believing children and a believing son-in-law. We try to have daily devotions and to work on memorizing Scripture as well. Recently, as we were pressed for time, one of my sons suggested that we do our memory work for the morning. I wasn't all that prepared, but it reminded me of how important it is to surround oneself with believers. As I sat and listened to them, I thought, "This is the fruit of what Christ does in your life. They each encourage us, and we encourage each other as we challenge, exhort and live our lives for the Lord."
I also have a great opportunity to work with young people through the Jim Ryun Running Camps that we conduct each summer. It is an experience for us as a family because we see how it is an opportunity to share Christ with runners from around the country. We dedicate part of our schedules to being there. Catharine, our daughter who works in the White House, sets aside time to be there. My wife, Anne, ever full of God's love, will be there. My sons, Ned and Drew, are the real workhorses behind it. They organize it throughout the year, get the coaches and do all of the advertising. The end result is a running camp with a Christ-centered atmosphere that encourages and challenges young people to run well and to let Christ be the preeminent figure in their lives as they move forward in their spiritual journeys.
Q: How does this motivate you personally?
A: I am constantly reminded of how someone reached out to Anne and me just in the right place because they were living their lives in such a way that it became attractive in a time of need. That is part of the challenge for each one of us. I want to be living a life so that when someone has a need, I will be in the right place at the right time.
Hebrews 12:1-2 is one of my favorite Scriptures. It talks about perseverance; it talks about Jesus hanging on the cross and the suffering He went through. There are some correlations to running in the sense that there is a certain amount of pain involved, and the goal in running is to run faster. But how much more important are the spiritual goals of helping others to find Christ and of having a home in heaven.