Spiritual Practice

Olympic Forgiveness

Tom Arthur

devozine Track starAfter finishing eighth in the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Louis Zamperini was expected to break the record for the mile in 1940; but World War II cut short his Olympic career. He ended up in the U. S. Air Force, was captured by the Japanese Navy, and held in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp where he and other prisoners were treated horribly. Sergeant Watanabe, whom the prisoners nicknamed “The Bird,” took a special interest in breaking down Zamperini. When the war came to an end, The Bird spent several decades hiding out in rural Japan, eluding the hunt for war criminals. The authorities concluded, after years of fruitless searching, that he must have died.


Meanwhile, Zamperini returned home and married; but his life quickly spiraled downward because of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Bird showed up nightly to terrorize him in his dreams. To cope with the pain, Zamperini turned to alcohol and became obsessed with thoughts of returning to Japan, hunting down The Bird, and killing him.

Zamperini and Cynthia, his wife, had a baby daughter; but Zamperini treated them so badly that Cynthia decided to move out. Shortly afterward, she went to a Billy Graham crusade and ended up dragging Louis back to hear Graham speak. Zamperini was skeptical at first, but eventually he asked Jesus to forgive his sins and to bring healing to his relationships. He went home and poured out his alcohol. That night, Zamperini slept peacefully for the first time since leaving the POW camp. Miraculously, The Bird never haunted his dreams again.

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In 1950, Zamperini was given the opportunity to go back to Japan and to meet many of the Japanese guards from the POW camp. Realizing that his new life in Christ meant following Jesus’s example of forgiveness, Zamperini spoke to his former captors of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and offered his own forgiveness as well. Many of the guards were amazed; but unfortunately, Watanabe was not present. Zamperini was told that he had killed himself.


devozine Zamperini in front of iconic photo of race

In 1998, Zamperini was invited to run one leg of the Olympic torch ceremony, held in Nagano, Japan, the location of his POW camp. While he was there, a reporter told him that Watanabe was still alive. Zamperini decided he would meet Watanabe and personally offer him forgiveness. The decision wasn’t easy, and many of the old feelings he had harbored for so long began to surface again. But knowing that Jesus had forgiven his sins, Zamperini was compelled to forgive Watanabe.

When Watanabe refused to meet, Zamperini wrote him a very moving letter, describing the pain that Watanabe had caused Zamperini and other POWs, offering words of forgiveness, and even inviting Watanabe to receive Jesus’s forgiveness. The Bird never responded, but Zamperini understood that the power of forgiveness is not dependent on the response of the other person. Watanabe was the one who missed an opportunity for peace and reconciliation.

Zamperini’s story reminds us that as Christians, we are called to something far better than revenge. We are called to offer forgiveness, which seeks out reconciliation.




Write a letter to someone who has hurt you. Tell the truth about what his or her actions did to you. Then offer forgiveness. Remind the person that you are also in need of forgiveness, and invite him or her to join you in receiving God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Show the letter to someone you trust who can help you edit it and decide whether to send it. Even if you choose not to send the letter, writing it will help you to forgive. For help writing the letter, read Unbroken, a book about Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand (, or visit Louis Zamperini’s website at


Photo Credits: Photo (top) courtesy of USC Sports Information. Photo (center) © 2011 The Personal Navigator. Photo (bottom) courtesy of Norm Bellingham.

Tom Arthur is the pastor of Sycamore Creek Church in Lansing, Michigan.

—from devozine (July/August 2012). Copyright © 2012 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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