By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times September 9, 2016
Is sport morphing into a new religion? It shows traits, says Ian Harris, but it can never be the real deal.
I wondered if it occurred to many of us that sport is developing traits that overlap with religion.
Not the sport of backyard cricket, a swim at the beach or school athletics, but sport on the international scale. In a world becoming more globally conscious and, in many countries, more secular, is sport moving into the vacuum left by a diminishing religious awareness?
And as commentators breathlessly tot up their country’s tally of gold, silver and bronze – 18 for New Zealand this time – the further question arises whether nations promote and fund global sport for the benefits it confers on the athletes, or for nationalistic pride and prestige? In the end, who gains from the millions poured into top-level sport? Who loses out as a consequence?
The sporting multifest which are the modern Olympics certainly captures the imaginations and emotions of people in every country. Athletes exerting themselves, and spectators watching from their far-away couches, live the pulsating moments of extreme effort, the hair’s-breadth separating a winner from an also-ran/swam/rowed/sailed/jumped/threw/shot/rode/played. And burst with pride or shared the Watching the Rio Olympics – or rather, the snippets doled out on free-to-air television – desolation of yet another oh-so-close triumph or loss.
I see strains of religion in this. Many athletes obviously draw strength from faith that their God is blessing their effort, willing them forward, inspiring them to excel. Prayers back home focus on a competitor and his or her event – presumably offset by prayers on behalf of their rivals. That puts God, when conceived as intervening to determine outcomes from beyond, in an impossible bind: not even a God of miracles can make everyone a winner in the same event.
The focus then switches to how everyone trained and prepared, avoided the temptation to cheat with drugs (or didn’t), competed, “left nothing in the tank”, and carried their elation or disappointment.
Sport exalts the striving body, and there is everything to admire in those who attain the heights of Olympic and Paralympic competition. The basic challenge is to master a discipline and continually push beyond what they have achieved so far. That requires dedication to a goal of excellence, commitment to fitness programmes and training schedules, discipline in persisting through the bleaker patches. There’s a transcendence in this – not in any supernatural sense, but in “climbing across or beyond” (that’s what the word means) an athlete’s current limits to be better than before.
Challenge, dedication, commitment, discipline, transcendence – these are qualities equally at play in religion. The big difference is the context. In the Olympics it is human physicality, put to the test in front of a global audience. The honours go to the individual or team, purely on performance on the day. Other personal qualities are irrelevant, as we saw with the American swimming medallists in Rio who fabricated a tale of being robbed.
That points up another reason why sport will never amount to a religion, best defined as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”. While the demands of sport may determine how an athlete lives his or her life, and may even give it transitory worth and meaning, sport of itself has nothing deeper to offer on how to interpret life as a whole. In the heat of competition, nobody cares about that anyway.
Community is another major point of difference. A sense of being in life together with others for the long haul is central to religious experience. Ideally, religion offers communities where everyone participates, and which provide mutual support and opportunities for sharing and growth in the interpreting and living of life.
Contrast the Olympics, where the community of interest swells and dissipates as events and personalities come and go. By far the greatest numbers in sporting communities of interest are not participants, but spectators taking a vicarious pleasure in the achievements of others. Moreover, the glory of sport is fleeting. Heroes and heroines shine and bow out. Adulation waxes and wanes. The fresh and the new rub the gloss off the stars of yesteryear.
So while there are traits that overlap with religion, they hardly add up to a total mode of the interpreting and living of life. For that, there needs to be, at the very least, a sense of what people consider ultimate in the values that determine their behaviour, and in the concern they have for the world and for others. Such concern may or may not include a concept of God (or Godness). But for billions, it helps.