Sport as religion | Third Space

Sport as religion

When the good thing becomes a God thing
Tue 29 Oct 2019

Rugby is the game played in heaven. Which means it must be hell when your team loses.

A recent trip to Auckland coincided with New Zealand’s defeat in the Rugby World Cup semifinals. It felt like hell. I had run past the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby, Eden Park, in the week leading up to the match. The air was thick with belief.

Yet four days later walking through the Auckland airport, and the All Blacks merchandise store was having a mark down sale. Not a lot of customers! An air of death hung around.

Heaven, hell, spiritual, belief, death. Big religious words to describe a decidedly non religious activity: sport.

Now maybe rugby is not your thing.. Maybe it’s the “beautiful game” - football, or “soccer” as we call it here in Australia.

Legendary Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankley, famously observed:

“Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.”

Perhaps it feels like that when your team is playing in a final. Or maybe if your home town is struggling and unemployment is high, you pin all your hopes on sport. But if at half-time you received news that your partner had suddenly died, Shankley’s comment would seem cruel.

Even if you’re a player! Switching codes again, I remember the famed St Kilda star Nicky Winmar playing in the 1997 AFL Grand Final the day after his dad died. Win it for dad, that was the aim.

But with Adelaide running away with the game, Nicky’s tears started running too, as grief was compounded by impending disappointment. Which stung him more: The death of a grand final dream or the death of his father? It’s silly to even ask, isn’t it?

Sport is a great servant, but a terrible master. It serves us well when it reflects the greater realities: hope/despair, winning/losing, saints/sinners, heroes/villains, victory/defeat.

But when it becomes those realities? When it threatens to be master? Sport gets in to trouble when people make a good thing an ultimate thing. And sport gets us in to trouble, when we do that.

We see this with crowd violence and racism in European soccer, riots between opposing fans using sport as a means to vent hate. But, sadly, we’ve seen it in Australia too, with fans screaming and abusing opponents and being ejected from the ground. To mention nothing of the constant booing that accompanied another great indigenous player, Adam Goodes, a number of years ago.

And what about us as individuals? Sandpaper-gate anyone?

But it’s not just elite sport. As a club runner, I know all too well the intoxicating endorphin kick of posting a PB in a 10km race. But I also know that other kick: the one in the guts when I don’t perform my best even after months of training.

If running starts mastering me; becoming my identity; taking over my focus; draining me of joy when I don’t succeed; filling me with fear that I must succeed; then heaven and hell seem possible!

Recently retired USA running star, Ryan Hall, who holds the USA Half Marathon record, speaks about a time when running becomes master instead of servant:

My sense of worth and my joy was totally dependant on how well I was running. The result of having running as my god was frustration, worry, depression, and discontentment with life. I never found the satisfaction I was looking for, even though I was leading what most people would call a successful life.

Hall had made a good thing a “god” thing. And it was crushing him. It was only when he decided to reframe the place that sport had in his life, that things changed. Ryan is now a Christian, and he says this:

When I’m following Christ closely, there’s a contentment and satisfaction in my life that is far greater and longer-enduring than any good race I’ve ever run.

Do you get that? Ryan Hall uncoupled his contentment and satisfaction from his running achievements, and it liberated him. Few of us - point-something of one percent - will ever achieve the sporting success he did, but even he saw the dangers in making a good thing - in his case sport - into an ultimate, or “god" thing.

And if it isn’t sport for us, what is it that, if taken away from us, would destroy our contentment and satisfaction? What would liberate you from the risk of making a good thing a “god” thing?

I’ll leave the last words to Hall:

If I can praise God with all my body, mind and soul [at the Olympics], then I’ll walk away form the finish line satisfied, no matter what the outcome, and that will be a satisfaction that no one can take away from me.

What would that look like for you?

Photo: NPHO/James Crombie /

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