Monday, 3 May 2010

Sporting Glory

Kutz has posed the question, "what does the bible say about competitive sport?". An important question for us Aussie blokes because we love our sport. In one sense it's an easy question to answer because the bible says nothing (or virtually nothing) about it. Well, not directly. I think the closest the Bible comes to sport is the story of David and Goliath. Goliath wanders about in front of the ranks, challenging the Israelites to send someone out to fight him one on one and decide the whole battle on that one contest. This is representative sport at its most serious, but they obviously don't mean quite what they say, because after David kills Goliath they have a massive battle anyway, which the Israelites win with great slaughter.

Still, this is one way to look at sport - as a symbolic battle between competing groups of people. It took on a slightly different form at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where the Nazi regime tried to use the contest to show the supremacy of the Aryan race. The success of African American athlete Jesse Owens in winning four gold medals is seen these days as a repudiation of that aim, but Owens said at the time he got more grief and rejection from the American authorities than from the Nazis.

There are other ways to look at sport, though. At its most basic level it's just fun. All of us have gone to the park with friends and family and played a bit of cricket or football. Sometimes you don't even keep score, but if you do it doesn't really matter much. The point is that you're all together, enjoying yourselves. Maybe this doesn't qualify as competitive sport, but it seems to me like a Christian sort of activity - people living in community, motivated by love, expressing their joy at being part of creation.

At a more serious level, lots of people take part in organised competition. People play to win, the competition has a points table, and in the end there is one champion. How does this type of sport fit with Christian ethics? It's a funny beast. It's clearly not warfare because no-one gets killed unless by accident, but it's not quite motivated by Christian love either. In a sense it is like the symbolic war of David and Goliath. There are defined sides. You do everything you can to help and support your own side, while working together to thwart the opposition who by definition are outsiders, others, rivals if not actually enemies.

I think the origins of this sort of sport lie in the medieval ideals of chivalry. The chivalric code was an attempt to control and guide the behaviour of the large numbers of armed nobles roaming around Europe in the late middle ages. They were to treat women and elders with courtesy, protect the weak, fight fairly. Of course these ideals hardly applied in war, but they applied at least in theory during peace time. At medieval tournaments, the aggression and desire for battle amongst these young men was sublimated into a kind of ritual combat which, as well as serving as training for the real thing, allowed them to show off their strength and skill without killing each other - at least not very often.

A lot of these ideals were transported into the sporting culture of the English upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. This focused around the idea of fair play. Sport was played by two teams as near equal as possible, playing under the same conditions, conducted according to a clear and detailed set of rules which are applied impartially to both sides by a neutral adjudicator. Furthermore, there is a code of behaviour which states that you won't cheat, you will treat your opponents with courtesy, you will acknowledge the superiority of the winner and not gloat over the loser, and that the conflict is confined to the field with friendly relations between teams off field. This kind of behaviour was beautifully illustrated a couple of years ago in the ABC TV documentary of the 1960-61 cricket series between Australia and the West Indies. In those days all the players were still basically amateurs and forty years on the joy of the competition and the affection between the two teams shone through.

Thinking about this sort of sport from a Christian perspective, you would have to think, how does this match how we see the Kingdom of God? In the Kingdom, people act towards each other with love. There are no divisions on the grounds of race, gender, age, etc. Greed, selfishness and hate are banished. It seems to me that this sporting ideal is part way there. If the ideal were fully honoured, there would still be a little thorn in the side, because we still have tribes, and one side still has to lose. It is so easy to slip from the ideal, to develop a culture of hate for your opponents, to cheat as much as you can get away with, to use psychological warfare. Still, for us living in the here and now, sport is surely a lot closer to the kingdom than a lot of other things we do.

The other way of looking at sport, one that is huge in our culture these days, is as a form of entertainment. Elite professional sport is funded by companies seeking advertising for their products and TV networks looking for content, and played by highly trained full-time athletes who become household names.

The oldest example of this type of sport comes from the ancient Romans, and it's not encouraging. In their games, slaves were forced to engage in staged battles, with other slaves or with fierce animals, using real weapons and ending in real death. This is exploitation at its worst. Christians rejected this form of entertainment from the start, and were often its victims.

The modern version is a lot milder, because it has grown out of the traditions of British sporting chivalry. There is still an effort to retain the ideal of fair play. Players still shake hands after the game, and see themselves as playing hard but within limits. Genuine friendships do grow up between opposing players, and in the case of international sport these are often cross-cultural. I enjoy watching televised Rugby League. It's a tough, physical game played by extremely fit, strong young men, and injuries are frequent. Players tackle each other intending to hurt. Yet hardly a game goes by without a player signalling to a referee or trainer when their opponent appears to have sustained an injury, and even giving immediate aid until the trainer arrives. They understand that there are boundaries.

Yet for all of this, the seeds of trouble that exist in any competitive sport are amplified by the amounts of money riding on the outcome. The temptation to do anything to win, including cheating, is obvious. We have players using performance enhancing drugs, teams hiding financial dealings to allow them to overspend their recruitment budget. And the converse - players taking bribes to play badly, so that some bookmaker can clean up on the outcome. If "the love of money is the root of evil" and "you can't serve God and Mammon", then there has to be a serious question mark over the compatibility of this kind of sport with the Kingdom.

Uh oh, does this mean I have to give up watching the footy?


Shelley said...

I'm not much of a sports person but I thought of two passages that might be relevant to the topic(?):

1 Timothy 4:8 (New International Version)

8For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Corinthians 9:25-27 (New International Version)

25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Jon said...

Cool - thanks. That gives a good order of priorities, which would help us to avoid some of the pitfalls that come to sporting activity.