June 2011: Sport
Five years ago David Foster Wallace wrote about Roger Federer: “He is, at 25, the best tennis player currently alive. Maybe the best ever.”
The author’s thesis was that if you’d never seen the young man play live and then did, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon … “then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience’.”
Similarly, it has been said that the likes of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo display what makes football a religious experience and the World Cup a place where “the profane becomes sacred”.
A writer in the Guardian last month said praying for a sporting result was one of the most widespread religious behaviours in the world.
Preston Davis, an MDiv candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, last year wrote that the World Cup in its pure state was not much different from the theologising of Christmas: it is artistry embodied in flesh — a kind of divine incarnation.
“When one watches a highlight reel of Brazilian soccer hero Ronaldinho, words fall short but grace permeates. I think to myself, ‘Now that’s what it means to operate out of freedom.’”
Foster Wallace said, “Great athletes seem to catalyse our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.”
They make too easy the writing of hagiography (like the Messi biography reviewed this month).
When Kevin O’Gorman in Saving Sport refers to “the real danger of sport becoming a religion for the many” he acknowledges that sport has been seen to have a profoundly moral dimension — in the social values it fosters, such as fair play, loyalty, solidarity, generosity and friendship.
But it bothers him that a culture concentrating on, consumed by and communicating on competition in a variety of athletic codes can accord sport the status of an alternative, albeit secular, religion.
Perhaps what’s called for is some interfaith dialogue!
As something with pervasive social and cultural implications, sport warrants theological consideration.
Along with family and religion, it is an institutional thread uniting communities.
For women in some countries, unveiling their soccer dreams is evidence of social change and personal development, emancipation and empowerment.
Here in Australia, diet and exercise can be a spiritual discipline; a prayerful activity.
As teams and communities form around particular practices and events it presents a need for ministry and pastoral care. Christians who participate in sporting activities and join related communities may find the opportunity for evangelism.
So what’s the best advice? Exercise daily — walk with the Lord (as they say in sports chaplaincy).