He was a young man raised in a strict home. Athletic competition, at least the popular kind, was on the forbidden list. After all, look at how little those athletes wear. Properly religious people do not expose themselves like that. “No you can’t go to the races. We don’t do that sort of thing.” So he snuck out of the house. He was known at the training sites. He was a likable boy, though somewhat different than the usual crowd. He knew the best runners in the area, and rooted for them to be good enough to compete in the Olympic Games. He seems to have liked wrestling. And the boxers. He loved the boxing matches. Because the crowds were large he could usually sneak in without paying the admission fee. Even if he got caught, though, they usually let him stay. One of the boxers might vouch for him, or one of the regular spectators. He loved to be ringside.
As a young man he went away to school. They did not approve of the races and the boxing, just as his parents had not. At school, though, it was not as easy to sneak away. The second nearest training site was about two days away. The nearest was on the military base, and there was no way he could get through that security. So he had to settle for his memories of the runners and boxers of his youth. Still, what he had seen and heard near the tracks and rings stuck with him.
After he got out of school his life changed. His new job required that he travel all over the world. He even got to visit a site of the Olympic Games. His job title was “Motivational Speaker,” and he was good at it. Now that he had the means and the opportunity to enjoy the games, he had not the time or the inclination. His work was important. The games were not a matter of life and death; his speaking was very much so. And so, in his later years, when he wanted to talk about self-discipline he spoke of boxing. When he wanted to exemplify endurance he thought of the runners. To epitomize struggle he looked to the Greco-Roman wrestlers.
While that description of Paul’s early years may be fiction, we do have some of his later writings to fuel that speculation. Here is what he said about those games that he seemed to love.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:12)
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? (Gal 5:7)
Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. (Php 2:16)
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Tim 4:7-8)