I used to be on a traveling softball team. When you are 13, and in a competitive sport, winning actually was the most important thing. It was not the pride that accompanied the win, no; it was the ever-glamorous trophy! Tournaments were not worth your time if you did not return home with that symbol of triumph. I placed them around my room like success shrines and fished in the compliments.
Contemporary culture is nowhere-near the start of athletic games. The bible records many traditional events that surrounded the idea of competition and victory. The Isthmian games, for example, were held in Corinth and famous for awarding the "crown of celery” in honor of athletic achievement.
As a more visible example, consider the numerous instances where the bible speaks of athletic victory:
1 Corinthians 9:25
Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. – NASB
2 Timothy 4:8
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
God’s Word speaks of eternal life in comparison with athletic success. The people of this culture understood the illustrations much in the same way as we do. The ultimate victory - trophy or crown – that we can win is eternal salvation. This victory, like all others, must be earned.
Winners are called to run the same race as losers, but the path of the winner is straight.