I would like to note before beginning that I have long been a fan of sports, but nonetheless would like to note that there are some unmistakable and often unexamined parallels between contemporary sports and pagan religion that anyone hostile to the ways of the heathen ought to at least ponder and consider. I would also like to point out that what I wish to talk about here is a preliminary investigation into evidence rather than a conclusion about the evidence. Considering the contentious nature of the subject and the implications, it is necessary to state the tentative and exploratory aspects of the investigation at the outset.
I have long pondered over the relationship between sports and religion. In particular, it appeared that many aspects of contemporary sports celebration bore very close relationships with prominent aspects of heathen religion from the Ancient Mediterranean. It is my point to examine some of those today, in the hope of uncovering future research that might either substantiate or further explain the apparent connections between contemporary sports practice and heathen religious practices.
The initial similarity I would like to comment on is in such humanistic ancient events as the Olympics (originally stopped due to Christian hostility) being restored in the late 1800’s during the rise of secular humanism during the late 19th century and since then. The timing of the restoration of the Olympics seems suspicious, resulting from the decline of Christian religion as a result of false and heathen views of science and religion, as well as the growing feeling of a brotherhood of civilized (aka “humanistic”) nations in the West. It is not surprising that the Olympics has been used before directly to justify bogus racialist views of the world (1936 in Berlin, Germany) or that blantant politicking has been involved in decisions ranging from ice dancing scores to which nations get bids, or in the monumental (and, as Athens in 2000 showed, monumentally wasteful) way that expenditure on massive stadiums fails to benefit the people at large, except as a distraction to what is going on and an excuse for nationalistic fervor, despite the claims of politicians and promoters. The Olympics, and related events (like the World Cup) seem to appeal to the tribal nature of heathen religion by encouraging ethnic rivalries and hostility based on national origin, rather than glorying in the identity of a Christian nationality in heaven that transcends the boundaries of race and ethnicity and “tribe.”
This tribal aspect of sports does not stop at the national level but continues down to the city level, and sometimes (as is the case with college athletics or high school sports) within the city level, sometimes to neighborhoods. However, just as pagan cities contained their various competitive temples all seeking adherents, modern cities contain their stadiums with fans cheering on one team or another based on their own tribal loyalties–another way in which competitive spirit serves to divide neighbors, friends, and families, between people supporting one team (represented by a totemic “mascot” and often cheered on by its own attractive vestal virgins–we call them cheerleaders).
This brings up another one of the unsettling aspects of much of sports practice in our present day, its connection of athletic prowess with sexuality, whether the male sexuality of the successful sports star (similar to the Roman gladiator or Greek Olympic athlete) whose athletic successes made him very desirable to females or the female sexuality of the cheerleader who is supposed to whip up the (often male) supporters of a sports team to a great religious fervor through the manipulation of sexuality, and in the fact that cheerleaders are strongly discouraged from involvement (and marriage) due to the image of accessibility they must maintain for the male athletes and fans of a given team. This relationship is not accidental or coincidental either, and is particularly troubling for those who oppose pagan immorality and the manipulation of lust (for athletes or cheerleaders), anger (at referees, often), envy (of titles and championships), gluttony (at the concessions stand), or other sins in order to sway the crowd to feel as one in support of their home team.
Then there is the aspect of so much of sports practice involving deception–faking out one’s opponent by pretending to do one thing and then doing another–that is troubling as well. Apparently, the practice of sports is one area where honesty and straightforwardness is actively discouraged and even punished within the rules of the game, while deception and trickery are actively praised, despite being blameworthy under the absolute moral standard of God. We ought to be careful in ourselves, we who praise integrity, to engage in deceptive practice even for fun, for that which we practice and enjoy in one sphere of life will often seep over into other aspects of life simply because human beings are not spill-proof containers.
I say this not as some kind of Puritan opponent to fun or athletic competition, but as someone who has, frequently, either directly engaged in sports or supported various teams, and someone with a fairly strong local attachment to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and its teams. Nonetheless, as someone who seeks to deeply examine the spiritual principles behind even mundane actions, one must admit that some prominent aspects of sporting as it is practiced (even by religious people, maybe especially by them) is certainly at best questionable under consistent biblical standards of behavior.
It should go without saying, but it may not, that athletic endeavor or physical exercise is not what is being condemned here, but rather heathen religious practice as it is expressed in sports. Paul himself both praises and draws a contrast between the ways of this world and God’s ways concerning sports in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the price? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the price is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
In contrast to the inflaming of the lusts and sins of the flesh (and of pride) referred to earlier as the normal conduct of sporting events in the world, the Christian is to conduct himself (or herself) in such a way as not to be disqualified by the rules and standards of Christian conduct. A believer is not in competition against anyone else for salvation, but against himself (or herself). We must be aware, as Paul was, that we ourselves may preach others but be disqualified by our own poor conduct, and so that ought to inspire us to be more consistent in our beliefs and practices, more self-disciplined in thought, word, and deed. We are, after all, competing for an eternal prize where there is far more than merely one winner. In fact, everyone who meets the standard wins, but such a victory depends on immense self-discipline and a lifetime of moral training. It is not something to be taken lightly.
I wonder why we who ought to be religious are often easily steered into competition when our real goal is fellowship and the edifying of others. It is too easy to think of our brethren as rivals for power and authority who must be kept down lest they be a threat to our prestige and power, as competitors for responsibilities and honors, when in reality we are only in competition with our own human nature, so that we can meet the standard of God and develop as best as possible those gifts and talents that God has given us. We all have to run our own race–we do not win by beating someone else. There is no relative scale of “good enough” to win because our performance and effort was better than the other person or team.
I have a lot of musing and thinking to go on these subjects before coming to any firm conclusions, but there is enough to muse on and reflect over that reflects in a troubling fashion on our times and society and its behaviors, and to the extent that the ways of the world rub off on all of us, whether we like or not, or whether we are even aware of it or not. I would like to conclude this particular note by examining some of the books I am looking to read in order to gain some sort of historical context on the relationship between ancient heathen sporting practices and modern sports behavior among fans, athletes, and cheerleaders. Wish me luck.
Here is one promising book, entitled: Sport and Spectacle In The Ancient World, by Donald Kyle. This is what its blurb says: “Donald G. Kyle shows that sports are part of social, civil, and religious life. Although we may not know whether sport emerged from ritual or hunting and warfare, or started on its own, sport and the competitive/aggressive spirit has always been with us. If you’ve ever wondered about the sports analogies of life and the ancient tradition behind and popularity of the Superbowl, World Cup, or Wimbledon, you should read this book .” Sounds like an excellent read for my purposes to me.
Another book, Sports and Society In Ancient Greece, by Mark Golden, negatively reviewed on Amazon, promotes itself as “the only up-to-date general introduction to ancient Greek sport now available in English. Its subjects include the origins and history of the Olympic games, athletic nudity, professionalism, and the place of women in Greek sport” . This book might do well with regards to Greek History, certainly an important aspect of the theme I wish to research, but might be less adept in showing the modern context of the Greek athletic and religious perspective. Nonetheless, I will have to look for it as well.
Another book, Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture, by Michael B. Poliakoff, seems to clearly understands my interest in the relationship between competitive sports and violence. One reviewer said the following about this book: “The book provides an excellent view of ancient societies through their principal combat sports—boxing, wrestling, and the pankration, a combination of the two plus kicking. . . . Poliakoff. . . gives us a clear and accurate picture of the nature, use, and meaning of combat sports in ancient times. . . . A valuable addition to the literature on ancient sport because it not only expands our knowledge of ancient times but it also refines our thinking about the needs and behaviors of our forebears. . . . I welcome Poliakoff’s book. His analysis of ancient combat sports has given me a clearer picture of their purpose and meaning. . . . This book is not just for students of ancient sport and culture but for anyone interested in the nature of competition and violence in sport .” This book definitely sounds like a winner, if I can find it to read it, and together these three books would be a good start to developing some expertise with the historiography of ancient sport, and the relevance of pagan religious practice to modern-day sports. It looks like I have some more research work cut out for me.