God versus the gods of sport

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Competition in sport can be a good thing but it can also be detrimental and have devastating effects when competitors are elevated to God-like status. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks at how competitors have been put on pedestals to the point where they feel they have to win at all costs.

At least four major sporting tournaments are currently on the go. In France, the Fifa Women’s World Cup is on; Egypt is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) while England has welcomed fans from all over the world who have made sporting pilgrimages to the Cricket World Cup and Wimbledon tennis tournament.

St Paul warned the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race, all runners run but only one receives the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Many who are rooting for their teams and individuals are going to be disappointed because there can only be one winner.

Some, South African football and cricket fans, are already devastated by their teams’ poor performances at the Women’s World Cup, Afcon and at  World Cup cricket, respectively.

The joys of sport are many. It is impossible to say what 15-year-old Cori Gauff, beating her hero Venus Williams in straight sets at Wimbledon, will do to encourage young tennis players all over the world.

Sport, especially professional sport, has the unfortunate capacity to make its followers take their eye off the ball, as it were, and make it about making money and creating demigods. 

Sport, especially professional sport, has the unfortunate capacity to make its followers take their eye off the ball …

The idea of comparing sports to religion is as old as sport itself. Talk of calling sporting greats “the god of [insert the sporting code]” is common place. So is the worship of sporting teams and clubs.

The common use of sports stars as “idols” has made us forget that the word “idol” comes from idolatry. This effectively means that fans turn the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Hamilton Lewis and their ilk into false gods.

It is no great wonder then that sports personalities and teams are supposed to achieve godlike feats. They cannot afford to disappoint, or to ever falter, and they must always be unerring. 

It is no great wonder then that sports personalities and teams are supposed to achieve godlike feats. They cannot afford to disappoint ...

Those who coach and train individuals and teams ought to have perfect foresight and pick the right person and plan accurately for the tactics of the other team or individual such that the opponents are pummelled into submission.

Apart from being partisan, they should be omniscient and all-conquering.

It is not hard to see how trainers and coaches are cast as the modern day equivalent of the Old Testament God.

While this might be normal for professional sport as a high stakes and big money game, it is sad—especially for children getting into it—when sport in general adopts this narrow and dualistic identity of winners and losers, heroes and villains, and nothing else.

As in life, there is a large grey area between winning and losing. For one thing, there is the joy of showcasing God-given talents, having fun and testing one’s limits. 

The Parable of the Talents teaches us that all of us have some talent. It is not the size of the talent, but the ability to use it to the maximum of our abilities that counts.

A dualistic view of sport regarding whether one is a world champion or a loser discounts all that. Language such as “nobody remembers who came second” leads to toxic forms of competitiveness, such as the readiness to cheat and take harmful drugs so as to be number one.

anguage such as “nobody remembers who came second” leads to toxic forms of competitiveness, such as the readiness to cheat and take harmful drugs so as to be number one.

This zero-sum approach to sport discourages youngsters who are not protégés from even trying. Nobody ever wants to be the kid that no team wants to pick.

Another benefit of sport, particularly team sport, is knowing how to win and lose as a team. In the ever-increasing individualistic world, you would think that sport could be a force of good and a training school for the benefits of teamwork.

Just like in the workplace, the parish or even a religious community, there are group dynamics to be managed. For example, an under-10 hockey team must also navigate the reality that people are different and not equally talented, yet everyone has a role to play.

Focusing on whether the team won or on the star of the team, fails to give children valuable lessons that will stand them in good stead later in their lives.

As the escaped slave turned reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, Frederick Douglass, once said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  

Frederick Douglass

We can do no worse than remind ourselves and our children that “the beauty and joy found in sports, whether playing or watching, is something that benefits and unites everyone, regardless of religion, ethnic group, nationality, or disability”, as Pope Francis once said. 

Early teaching of the life skills they will need later in life is always better and cheaper than learning from social cohesion, anti-xenophobia meetings and corrective seminars.

They could produce better results than the team building exercises that succeed only in making those already grumpy get even grumpier by spending time with people they believe are the reason for their grumpiness.

Of course winning is great. But if it comes at a cost to our better humanity, it is pyrrhic.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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