Christianity v Sport - maybe it's a draw

I like to tell golfers that I have played the game only once in my life, aged 15, and that I went around in the middle 80s. If they admire that – usually they are too busy following up with a story of their own prowess to be impressed – I confess: it was the middle 1980s.

I deliberately rejected golf because I was already fanatical about cricket, and two sports with such a rich history, written about so often and so well, would require more hours in the day than I had.

The other day I was struck by a heretical thought: surely Christianity and competitive sport are a contradiction.

It became apparent early in life that I was never going to realise my ambition to be a Test cricketer, so I became a journalist to write about the game instead.

As an Australian male, I am emotionally invested in sport. (Plenty of Australian women are too.) After all, as the famous Liverpool coach Bill Shankly observed: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.” And to those who say “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”, I quote legendary US coach Vince Lombardi: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

It seems nearly all human societies with the luxury of time have a predilection for sport. As a CBS commentator, Bob Schieffer wrote decades ago that throughout history, the games people play have demonstrated their core values. “The Olympic Games evolved out of the ancient Greeks’ appreciation for the beauty of form and the human body. The blood sport of the Romans was a natural outgrowth of a society based on conquest. Native Americans loved contests that emphasised speed and the accuracy of their weapons, because their whole existence depended on those skills.”

Historically, sport is seen as ideal training, both for martial skills – the Duke of Wellington claimed the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton – and for social and ethical development.

At the aesthetic level, it is delightful to admire the grace and beauty of what gifted sportsmen and women can do. But, at the rational level, we all know that sport is absurd, that it really doesn’t matter who wins, that it is merely “muddied oafs” (Kipling) chasing a bit of leather around a paddock.

Here I am talking of sport for its own sake, rather than the massive money-spinning industry it has become, with huge television rights and constant gambling advertisements. But who thinks that is a good thing? Many of the older among us pine for more innocent times.

The muscular Christianity so prominent in the Victorian era valued sport highly. As Wikipedia defines it, this philosophy was characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, manliness, and the moral and physical beauty of athleticism.

This wasn’t universally admired. Turkish potentate Abdul Aziz, known also as Abdul the Damned, upon witnessing cricket for the first time, observed: “Remarkable! But what needless exertion! Why do you not compel your slaves and concubines to perform it for you?”

And Oscar Wilde’s commitment to sport was a little underwhelming: “Of course I have played outdoor games. I once played dominoes in an open air cafe in Paris.”

Even if there’s something a little uncomfortable in muscular Christianity, nevertheless I must say that I am glad that still today vast numbers of brilliant players in all sorts of sport are openly Christian. But the other day I was struck by a heretical thought: surely Christianity and competitive sport are a contradiction.

Christians are supposed to love their neighbour, to prefer others above themselves, to turn the other cheek, and so on. So if you and I are competing for the ball, should I not step aside and offer it to you? Should I not say, “please, after you, my friend. If you want the ball, it is yours”? Should I not defer to my opponent – not seven times, but 70 times seven?

Of course, if my opponent were also a Christian, he would do the same and no action would be possible at all. Or we might agree to take it in turns – one goal for you, one for me. Very praiseworthy, but there go the broadcasting dollars.

I have been hopeless at several sports in my six decades. The sport at which I have been humiliating myself for the past few years is table tennis. In fact, I could describe myself as a quintessential Christian competitor, so often do I gift points to my opponents. Not so Christian perhaps is the fact that I sometimes get quite cross with myself.

I have managed to lose to an eight-year old boy, and (in doubles) to opponents with a combined age of 174, to a devilishly cunning player in a wheelchair, and to players even fatter than I am, rare though they are. The theory is that all this makes me a better person, though I have my doubts.

One resolution to the apparent contradiction between my faith and my love of competitive sport may lie in the ideal expressed by CBS’s Bob Schieffer: “The great value of sport is that it teaches us to recognise the difference between winning and striving for excellence, the better but much harder achievement. More important, sports teaches us how to handle failure, to get up and try again when we lose. That’s the most valuable lesson, since we lose more than we win in life.” He certainly got the last sentence right.

Barney Zwartz is media adviser to Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier and a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.