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By David J. Montgomery

A successful coach once said that sports were not a matter of life and death--they were much more important than that! The amount of time and energy expended by participants, the space given to sports by newspapers and broadcasters and the money paid by spectators and sponsors suggests that sports are among the most significant areas of human activity. On the surface, much of the activity appears inconsequential, even trivial: running, jumping, lifting or propelling a ball the length of a field, into a hole, over a net or between sticks. But the high level of interest taken by most people says much about the relationship of sports to basic human needs and their contribution to personal and social development.


Competitive team sports as we have them today are largely a legacy of the late nineteenth century. It was then that many rules became codified and games were incorporated into school curricula. Records in many of the current major leagues go back to this period. Horse racing probably goes back at least as far as the early sixteenth century, although, as with archery and fencing, many sports of this period are indistinguishable from military training. Individual athletic activity, however, was an ancient phenomenon. The original Olympics were founded around 776 B.C. The participants were the aristocracy with time for leisure, and the prize was simply a laurel wreath. Gradually the interests of individual city-states took over, and rewards in kind, including tax exemptions and army deferments, were offered. In a frighteningly contemporary scenario, these Olympics folded in A.D. 394 amid cries of bribery, intimidation and cheating.

The reviver of the Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, emphasized the underlying ethic of the games: "“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."” The ensuing hundred years have left their mark on sports in several key areas. Rampant commercialism and the demand for success at all costs have made amateurism increasingly unviable; Rugby Union, the last bastion, finally fell in 1995. Vibrant nationalism has replaced the Olympic ideal of Jeux sans Frontiers, (Games Without Borders). The pervasive influence of the media, which can dictate the timing and even rules of some sports--tennis tiebreakers were introduced because of television demands. This means that, in many people's eyes, sports are no longer their own masters. Sports that were once the domain of a particular subcultural group (horse riding, skiing and boxing, to name three) increasingly transcend those groups.

The Christian response to sports over recent centuries has often taken its impetus from the Puritan reaction of the seventeenth century. To be fair, their opposition to many sports stemmed from either the cruelty involved (blood sports), the sport's association with gambling, the immorality and drunkenness among participants or the fact that much of the sport took place on the workers' only day off, Sunday. D. Brailsford is unfair when he says, "“Puritans saw their mission to erase all sport and play from men's lives"” (p. 141). Though some Puritans believed “any formof play took on the badge of tim- wasting, idleness and, therefore, vice (Brailsford, p. 127), others believed that enjoyment of good company, reading good books and appreciating God's creation were all legitimate and beneficial exercises. The contemporary sports scene is different in many ways from that of the seventeenth century, and there has been a welcome recovery of the doctrine of creation, which encourages participation and enjoyment of leisure activities in moderation as gifts from God.


Although sports and sporting contests were clearly part of life in the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman world, clear references to sporting activity are somewhat lacking in Scripture. Examples sometimes cited include Jacob's wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:24-26), the "contest" between David and Goliath (1 Sam 17), Jonathan's archery (1 Sam 20:20), the contest at Helkath Hazzurim (2 Sam 2:14-16), Paul's allusions to the athletic stadium and boxing ring (1 Cor 9:24-27) and the metaphor of the race with spectators (Heb 12:1-2). Most of these are tenuous and cannot act as a foundation for a theology of sports.

Jacob's experience was an earnest struggle, not a recreational diversion. The references in 1-2 Samuel deal with the realities of war and military engagement. Even Jonathan's archery fulfilled a military purpose and does not support the idea of archery as a form of recreation. The New Testament references allude to the existence of athletic contests (in Paul's case it is probably the Isthmian games, which involved the six basic disciplines of running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, javelin and discus), but the purpose of the illustrations is spiritual, and not much can be deduced from these passages about the writers' views of such sport per se. It is safe to assume that the biblical writers' attitude toward sports was governed by the extent to which core kingdom values were upheld or undermined by the activity in question.


A major problem in generalizing on the theme of sports is the seemingly limitless variety of competitive sports. Any comprehensive encyclopedia of sports will contain statistics from over one hundred individual sports--from cricket to hang-gliding, from skiing to snooker. It will include geographically limited sports such as baseball, bandy, shinty and the American, Australian and Gaelic codes of football, as well as minority sports such as real tennis, fives, pelota and petanque. While this diversity of sports and cultures makes generalized applications unhelpful, if not impossible, certain benefits and drawbacks can be highlighted that are applicable to most, if not all, sporting activities.

Physical. An obvious benefit of sports, and the most quoted reason for involvement, is physical exercise. The precise benefits will vary, but solo sports such as running, swimming and cycling will improve the participant's cardiovascular fitness, while other sports such as the various codes of football and hockey contribute more toward body toning, muscular strength and endurance. Regular participation in athletic sports maintains the body, keeping it in good condition and counterbalancing more debilitating influences such as weight and aging. Soccer and running develop the lower body more than the upper, while the reverse is true of some racket sports. Swimming has long been accepted as the simplest and most effective way of keeping all the body's muscles active, while, in contrast, a golf swing involves a series of subtle, rapid, unnatural body movements involving up to sixty-four muscles and lasting for less than two seconds. In this case the physical benefits are accrued more through the simple activity of walking than through anything integral to the game itself.

Mental and emotional. The possible connection between a disciplined and healthy body and a higher degree of mental astuteness and emotional stability cannot be ignored. It is common for psychiatrists to recommend sports for their emotional and social benefits. Temporary depressions can be eased by physical exertion, and many can testify to receiving light on some complex problem while running or how mentally demanding work such as composition or written examinations have proved much less taxing after engaging in some recreation. From a spectator's perspective the emotions involved tend to be more extreme, fleeting and unreliable and, for the partisan fan, are often completely dependent on the outcome of the game. Sports have been regarded historically as an effective means of character building. The discipline of training, playing by the rules, coping with stiff opposition, striving to achieve the unthinkable and rebounding after disappointment or defeat are all useful attributes to develop in preparation for life. A healthy attitude to the above should result in an altogether more rounded and complete person.

Social and cultural. By their very nature team sports require cooperation and a high degree of interpersonal understanding and commitment. The esprit de corps experienced by team members is due to a combination of factors: an inherent enjoyment of the game, shared goals, a sense of achievement and shared sacrifices for the sake of the team. In many Western suburban societies where neighborhood community is decreasing, a sports club can become a prime arena for the social interaction of like-minded people. Major spectator sports also play an important role in a city's or country's sense of identity. In North America a city remains inseparably linked in the popular imagination with the name of its major-league team(s). In England the historical popularity of soccer is largely due to the loyalty felt by many to their local town and the sense of corporate identity provided by its team. In Gaelic cultures sports such as hurling and shinty and their ancient precedents performed an important role in training young men of the clan for battle, and the resultant intertown and intercounty competition is still strong today. Over the years some sports have been unifying agents, bringing together participants of diverse backgrounds in places of conflict such as World War I Europe (with its famous Christmas Day soccer game), Northern Ireland, the Middle East and modern South Africa.

Spiritual. Organizations such as Athletes in Action in North America and Christians in Sport in the United Kingdom have played a part in ministering pastorally to those involved in professional and high-level sports, as well as giving the Christian message some street