A Sporting Chance of Being Religious (Greg Spearritt)

  (24 May 10)

A Sporting Chance of Being Religious




By Greg Spearritt.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (the 'most successful Olympics ever') we saw Australian patriotic fervour rise to new heights. What can that amazing fortnight tell us about sport as religion and about Australians as a religious people? 


As has been well-publicised (not least by Professor William Baker in his lecture series 'If Christ Came to the Sydney Olympics' recently broadcast on Radio National's 'Religion Report'), religion was an important element in both ancient and modern Olympic movements. 


At the Greek games which began in 776 BCE, competitors took oaths and won crowns in the name of Zeus, and half the time was devoted to religious sacrifice, hymns, processions and prayers. 


Of even more interest is the genesis of the modern Olympic movement. The 'father' of the movement, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin saw the new Olympics in terms that were not only religious, but religiously humanist. Coubertin's position as described by William Baker has much resonance for SoFers: 


[Coubertain] spent his early years at daily Mass, at Catechisms, at Vespers, in a French Jesuit school devoted to religious study primarily. That scheme derailed when the would-be priest became a sceptic with reference to traditional orthodox creeds. He stepped next door to atheism in fact, only to find refuge in something called the religion of humanity, a fashionable, humanist philosophy espoused in the late 19th century by another Frenchman, Auguste Comte. Humanism for de Coubertain though, did not exclude religion, and it certainly did not exclude moral concerns that grew out of his religious heritage. Rather it intensified them, it gave them new meanings in contemporary life. 


De Coubertin stated baldly that: 


The first essential characteristic of the Olympics…is to be a religion…[I]t represents, above and outside the Churches, humanity's superior religion.


Recent Olympic Games, designed to be "humanity's superior religion", have seen Australia not just hosting and competing, but fighting and succeeding well above its weight in the medal tally. Sport clearly holds a special place in our society (as if we needed confirmation of that!). 


Can sport in Australia be called religion? It certainly has many religious or quasi-religious aspects. 


First, there's moral nurture. We hear athletes near the end of their career talking about 'giving back' to the sport that has given them so much. That usually means getting involved in promotion and coaching, and often the coaching of young people. Sporting clubs and fraternities become communities where older, more experienced players pass on not just their skills, but their philosophy and mores as well. In groups like 'Little Athletics', as well as in the team sports, the qualities of excellence and selflessness (being a good team-player, or a worthy representative) are handed on. Children grow up in these groups imbibing the values of courage, honest striving, loyalty and participation (and of course, as in many churches, an ability to backbite and gossip). 


To see the power of the moral-nurturing role of sport, one has only to look at the response of fans and members as well as players to the omission in the early 2000s of the Rabbit-ohs from the NRL. The outpouring of grief and rage and the determination to fight on spring from a sense of community where values rather than sporting skills are to the fore. Some in the club were fearful for what would happen to their young men without the guiding hand and opportunities of the football fraternity. 


The 'moral education' side of the Sydney Olympics was to be seen in virtually every commentary - with commentators showing approval or disapproval of athletes' behavior ("there's no place for that in the sport"; "a fine example of sheer hard work") - and even in the advertising (Westpac: "we're teaching our children Olympic ideals"). 


Another 'religious' role for sport which is as strong in Australia as anywhere is the bestowing of a sense of identity. Many thousands of people put aside their inhibitions to chant 'Aussie Aussie Aussie - oi oi oi!' in a display of nationalism, the like of which has rarely been seen in this country. (Winning the America's Cup springs to mind as another such occasion.) In many Australian sports, and most notably in the Big Two - footy and cricket - we see what John Carroll in his book Ego & Soul calls "the band of blood warrior brothers" (43), together with their kin, the inevitably biased fans. Tribalism and nationalism, so much a part of religion worldwide, are very much alive even in sports like netball and tennis in Australia. 


Carroll also sees in sport a metaphysical dimension with affinities to the religious experience of grace.  The sportsperson who trains well and has enough experience delivers her- or himself over to the gods on the playing field. Carroll says: 


Being in form… is a state of grace. It is as if some transcendental power has given the player its blessing. Watching a football team that has suddenly lifted itself and found its feet is to observe a collection of individual, fast-running men become one organism, and in a sort of state of collective ecstasy achieve a superhuman level of control… A team that regains its stride experiences regeneration - not by human works or free-will, but by divine grace. there are distant strains of the music of salvation echoing here, of atonement of man with man, with nature and with the universe. (37-9) 


Hockey provided a fine example of this in Sydney. I recall the Australian men's team winning a match without showing the special flair of which they are capable; the commentators felt they hardly deserved the win, even though they won fair and square. A vital element of 'sport' was missing. The women's team, in contrast, was a dream machine (justly) favoured by the gods. 


Sport for many Australians is, like religion, a means of giving meaning to life. Coubertain, according to Baker, wanted the modern Games to "show beauty and inspire reverence" for the human spirit in its quest for excellence. The elite athletes are for many an inspiration, enhancing the lives of those who follow their exploits. 


Related to this question of 'meaning' is the fact that both sport and religion are useless in themselves. The ability to run a hundred metres in less than 10 seconds surely has limited application. As I heard it on one talk-back show, most us will get by just as well if we leave for our destination a bit earlier. Religion, too, is a 'useless' pursuit: the bishops carrying crooks and wearing funny hats and dresses doesn't even seem to have amusement value in some churches. 


More broadly, of course,  both sport and religion are eminently useful, and this in two ways. First, they are inherently satisfying activities. They engage us wholeheartedly, drawing us out of ourselves into a state of living intensely, a sacred state. John Carroll sees a Calvinist sense of vocation in sport: even at amateur levels one can see what he means by the dedication that can be required and by the actual play. Sport, he says, 


is the one common activity in which there is no half-heartedness, the day just to be got through…This is serious, and with a quasi-religious intensity… (42) 


Much religious activity too is directed at transcending self and self-consciousness. 


Secondly, religion and sport are useful because of their effect on others. Fans find a sense of identity; they find pride and esteem in success and in being loyal; they can live intensely if vicariously; they are inspired by the play and the players. Coubertain apparently saw athletes as new adepts, disciples of the new muscular religion, and he thought of spectators and coaches as the 'laity of sport'. (Baker tells us he also envisaged the IOC as 'a college of disinterested priests'!) 


I would argue that religion is similarly useless unless it impacts positively on others. Love of God means nothing without love of neighbour; prayer is a waste of time unless it leads to change in attitude and behaviour (e.g. real-world action to help the other). Getting ourselves right with God or with the universe must have a purpose beyond our feeling good. However, even just participating in public worship can be an act for others in that it reinforces for fellow worshippers a sense of identity and community. 


The dark side of this ‘community’ aspect of both sport and religion is tribalism. I have come to see tribal identity as integral to many expressions of religion, with their readiness to identify, exclude and even demonise the outsider. It’s a phenomenon, of course, very familiar to many fans attending their chosen team’s ‘away’ games.


There are many more aspects of sport which may be considered to have affinities with religion. There is sacred space in the sense of "hallowed turf" (see Carroll, 39). Meditation, ritual and superstition seem to play an important role for many athletes (remember the way Marion Jones would go into a trance and slowly lower her head before the starting signal?). Carroll in Ego & Soul makes much of the significance of the Protestant work-ethic in sport: hard work and dedication bring salvation (so many Olympic athletes in their post-performance interviews made reference to having "worked for four years for this"). On this point, it's interesting to note a report in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the Games which claimed that Protestant countries win more medals overall than Catholic ones. 


There is also, finally, the undeniable fact of religious festival in sport. "There is something", claims Carroll, "of both the Aboriginal corroboree and the orgiastic Dionysian festival about modern sport" (34). In Australia we're not used to parades and carnivals where religious icons are ceremoniously and joyfully paraded through the streets (perhaps the Sydney Mardi-Gras?), but Grand Final preparations and celebrations seem to come pretty close. The ceremonial aspects of the Olympics, we are told, were deliberately modelled by Coubertin on Catholic ritual. 


I suspect many Australians, skeptical as we were in the wake of SOCOG's pre-Games performance, could understand or perhaps even identify with a young woman Baker mentioned in his lectures: 


she admitted matter-of-factly that she did not feel terribly excited or anything, as she put it, when she first attended an Olympic event.  But then she adds, 'I was sitting in the opening ceremony, and Christ, I  couldn't believe it. When the torch-bearer came into the stadium and the crowd roared, I began to cry. I remember thinking, So this is what it's all about. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment as long as I live.' 


Have the Sydney Olympics shown Australians to be a truly 'religious' people after all? I would say yes, but perhaps with a broader definition of 'religious' than many orthodox believers would allow. 


In keeping with the faith of the founder Coubertin, the Olympics (and sport in general in Oz) is a this-worldly, humanistic religion. The grace of the gods which can alight on well-prepared sportsfolk is merely one of those phenomena in the natural world (like the flock of birds wheeling as one) which causes awe but requires no sense of another reality beyond this. (I differ on this point from Carroll, who views sport as teaching of the existence of a metaphysical order - 39.) Sport exists for the joy and benefits it brings to people here and now. 


Sport, moreover, consists of activities self-consciously created by us. We know we made them up and we continue to make them up and modify them, but that does not affect the intensity with which we engage in them or the benefits we derive from them. It does, however, allow us, at least to an extent, to 'sit light' to sporting activity. Australians are particularly good at this, I think. The Opening Ceremony and especially the Closing Ceremony in Sydney showed that, for all the seriousness of the occasion, we are able to resist the temptation to pomposity and can even have a dig at ourselves. 


I see religion in much the same light: humanly created, but no less important or valid for that. And for God's sake, we should have fun with it. Oi oi oi!





William J. Baker If Christ came to the Sydney Olympics (UNSW Press, 2000)

William J. Baker – interviewed by John Cleary on Radio National’s Religion Report: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4)

John Carroll Ego & Soul (HarperCollins 1998) – see Review




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