Saturday, July 30, 2016

Religion, Sport and the Olympic Games

The summer Olympics starts next week in Brazil. If we can forget the scandals, corruption and politics of the Olympic movement, we could appreciate and enjoy some fine athletic (and hopefully doping-free) performances by competitors.

Speaking of competition, religion and sports has a long history, especially Christianity, where the Bible uses athletics as a metaphor for spiritual life.

For example, the writer of the book of Hebrews used the image of a long-distance race to encourage the early Christians. "Run with endurance the race that is set before us," the writer said, suggesting spiritual life was a marathon, not a sprint.

In the first book to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggested that merely running wasn't enough—winning was the goal of the Christian life.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” he wrote. “So run that you may obtain it."

In other places, Paul indicated his only aim in life was to "finish the race." But at another point, when he seemed to deal with some doubts, he worried that "I was not running, and had not been running, my race in vain."

Sportsmanship was also important to Paul, too—something athletes today could keep in mind when tempted to cheat.

"If anyone competes as an athlete, they do not receive the victor's crown unless they compete according to the rules," he wrote in the book of Second Timothy.

Of the major faiths, Christianity seems to have made the most of the sports-faith connection; think of all the athletes who point to the sky when they score a touchdown, take a knee in the end zone or when they hit a home run.

Publishers of the Bible have noted this affinity for sports, publishing the Athlete's Bible, the Sports Devotional Bible (helps you "get in great spiritual shape") or the Extreme Sports Bible.

The latter "contains 20 full-colour action photos of extreme sports, combined with verses about courage, bravery, faith, and adventure."

Other faiths also promote good health and exercise, but not to the same degree.

One Buddhist commentator notes that sport can help develop the mind, including positive states like team spirit, friendship, alertness and even a degree of detachment through gracefully accepting defeat.

Another suggests that athletes have a chance to experience a "meditative state worthy of a Buddha" through single-minded devotion and exertion.

"Sport becomes a form of meditation when you engage it with your full attention," he writes, suggesting this phenomenon can be called "sportsamadhi" -- "Samadhi" being the Sanskrit term for intense meditative concentration.

For Islam, most of the attention has been focused on restrictions on female participation in sports. But one Muslim commentator notes that the Prophet Mohammed recommended physical fitness to his followers, and that he participated in camel races.

Of sports in general, the prophet is reported to have said "any action without the remembrance of Allah is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one's family and learning to swim."

Since sports in Greek and Roman times were associated with idol worship, ancient Jews were critical of sporting activities. The Talmud, for example, condemns Roman sports, especially gladiatorial combat.

More recently, however, sport has been seen as a way for Jews to enter mainstream North American society, particularly through boxing and baseball.

The connection between religion and sports isn't restricted to playing fields; it has also found its way into the stands. American baseball teams often host religiously themed nights at their ballparks. Some have also held theme nights for atheists.

I don’t expect to see much in the way of religious observance at the Olympics this year, which is OK by me. Personally, I don’t think God has much interest in who wins in shot put or any other sport.

Unless it’s the winter Olympics, and we’re talking about hockey and Canada playing for the gold medal. That’s about as close to a religious experience as many Canadians will get.

For more on the religious roots of the Olympic games on this blog, click here.

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