I write this as someone who loves playing, watching and talking about sport and who readily recognises many benefits of sporting activity in a whole variety of applications. I would unashamedly advocate a physical education lesson daily in schools and the provision of access to quality and affordable sporting facilities for all ages. I enjoy watching Sports Personality of the year, though increasingly on each occasion, it only becomes increasingly apparent that there is something exponentially greater and seemingly elusive that the masses are searching for yet haven’t found.
Over several years the thought continually resurfaces that this annual celebration is akin to a sportsperson’s religious service set in a sporting arena style of ‘mega church’. There are songs exemplifying human achievement, coaches are revered as sporting gurus and their followers are carefully nurtured. Gareth Thomas succinctly remarked about sport in relation to ‘inspiration, belief and hope’. People that have passed away are remembered, candles are held in respect and songs are sung to celebrate their lives.
Much has been written on this in the subject of sociology and also politics of sport. There is no shortage of quotes related to sportspeople stating that sport is their life or that sport gives them ‘meaning’. There have even been academic articles published concerning sport as religion. Sport has also been hijacked on occasions by politics. I remember many years ago being engrossed in an A level project on how sport reinforces the values of capitalism whilst simultaneously learning how those from both capitalist and communist nations boycotted certain Olympic Games and former eastern bloc nations funded doping programmes.
Sport is a powerful phenomenon and there is more than meets the eye. Originally in Ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were held to honour the gods and it is no surprise that in contemporary society the highest achievers are given a demi-god like status. Mohammed Ali referred to himself as ‘the greatest’ and Wayne Gretzky was known as ‘the great one’. One slogan in relation to the discipline of training and joy of sporting success reads ‘pain is temporary, but glory is forever!’ In reality though, on this side of eternity, glory is short lived and never satisfies completely as the following short paragraph will encapsulate.
It was fascinating and enlightening to hear how a ‘now famous’ female soccer player articulated that winning in front of a worldwide audience should be rewarded with the opportunity to briefly celebrate; yet even that wasn’t ‘enough’. There would be more world cups to win since the pursuit of sporting success was relentless.
I remember receiving a certificate for athletics with a peculiar saying ‘by trying we can soar to great heights. It was equally noticeably that Tanni Grey-Thompson quoted Nelson Mandela saying that “sport has the power to change the world”. People that are involved in worldwide sport comprise billions of individuals. Sport does to some measure have the power to change the world yet equally it is a human means of solving a spiritual yearning and it cannot fill the vacuum.
Nelson Mandela hoped that winning the Rugby World Cup would unite South Africa and to some degree it helped. The Olympic motto ‘citius, altius, fortius’- has its limitations. Faster, higher, stronger can neither save you nor reconcile you to your Creator who is a holy, righteous and jealous God. Only the gospel has the power to transform lives with meaningful benefits that will last for eternity.
Like music, art or other pastimes there is a great deal of good that can be done for ourselves and for others. There are many Christian sportspeople at the highest level who are great ambassadors for the Lord and who share their faith effectively and faithfully with many that they rub shoulders with and who follow their sporting careers.
The danger lurks when sport becomes a religion, or when sport takes priority over our faith, or we worship the created beings and over elevate their status. I remember someone saying that a particular athlete was their idol. That was some twenty-seven years ago, and I’ll never forget that. The Bible expounds how God is to be glorified. It is okay to have sporting heroes though we must be careful never to deify or exalt them to a position of god-like status.
The greatest thing you can do for your sporting friends or champions is tell them how much you respect and appreciate them, yet explain to them how they can find their ultimate rest and fulfilment in the Lord. We are to be in the world yet not of it. Continue playing and enjoying sport and use it as an opportunity to witness and for the glory of God. At the end of the day, it is good and can be wholesome to enjoy sport, yet whatever we do let us do that in word and deed and to the glory of God.