Sports and athletic games have always been accompanied by the aura of the religious. The Olympic games, for example, whether they originated with the wrestling of the deities of the sky with the gods of the earth, or with Herakles who instituted the first games in honor of Zeus, or King Iphitos of Elis, who restored the games following the advice of the Delphic Oracle,they were in one way or another an expression of the human admiration of the gods. Hence, the Pythian games were held in honor of Apollo, the Isthmian games for Poseidon, and the Nemean games, like the Olympic games, in honor of Zeus. As Judith Swaddling observed, “The god was believed to bestow on the athletes the physical prowess which enabled them to take part in the Games. Accordingly, the athletes prayed to the deity and promised offerings should they be victorious.” The spirit of the ancient Games was truly captured by the original Greek word “enthusiasm” – literally meaning “being-in-god” or “possessed by a god.” This religious aura has remained in today’s spectator sports. However, it is far less visible. Thus disguised, modern athletic games have taken on new religious power–one that stands in marked contrast to the fascination of the Christian life.
Perhaps you are thinking of the hands raised to heaven at a touch down or after a home run. Or the genuflection of an athlete after scoring a goal. Or the Christian symbols (like cross or fish) on silver and gold chains or tattoos. These and other displays of religiosity are harmless, even if their new quasi-ritual character is sometimes annoying. More problematic is the fascination associated with mass sports entertainment at large. One indicator of this fascination are the ridiculously high salaries, bonuses, and extras received by the athletes. I have yet to see any serious questioning of the legitimacy of million dollar contracts or rewards for hitting small white balls into plastic cups, riding a bike for hundreds of miles through the country side, carrying an oblong leather ball across a line, or driving a car at high speeds around in circles (yes, these are deliberate caricatures) while paying high impact professionals, particularly teachers and educators (often those that taught the athletes) a laughable salary in comparison. The world is enamored by the entertainment value of athletic games and the men and women that represent them. Regardless of faith or moral character, athletes become the spokes persons for the things others should buy or the way others should think. A spirituality is involved in this fascination that holds several problems:
- A characteristic of the athletic games is their fascination with the spirit of the record, an unbroken enthusiasm about ever-new athletic performance in faithful observance of the Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger!” The Games are more than a mere spectacle of athletic competition; they are an expression of the insatiable human desire to overcome one’s boundaries. From one game to the next, the audience expects new records. Thus, it is not the athlete who fought a good fight but the one who was victorious above the rest, who stands separated from the crowds and competitors on a platform. In contrast, the effort of the Christian life is not based on the constant achievement of new records; there is no winner who takes it all. On the contrary, the spirit of the record leads to strife, jealousy, and divisions (1 Cor. 4:8). To adopt the athletic spirit would therefore introduce a concept of spiritual competition into the church that must at any cost be avoided.
- A second threat to Christian spirituality is found in the nature of mass sports events as primarily a spectator’s event in which the individual observer is able to hide in the enthusiasm of the crowd and can thus for a few moments escape the pressures of everyday-life. While a shared enthusiasm is a significant component for Christian worship, particularly in Pentecostal and charismatic circles, anonymous enthusiasm is harmful to any genuine Christian dox0logy. The individual Christian has a responsibility to consciously join the worship and praise of the congregation, but corporate worship is not primarily sparked by the enthusiasm of the crowd; it is in the true sense of the word self-motivated. It springs from a disciplined, intimate and whole-hearted fascination of the self with Jesus Christ and an enthusiasm that transforms the Christian self from a mere spectator, who witnesses and joins in a common act of worship, into a full member of Christ’s body, who is defined not only by acting as but by truly being a “worshiper.” Christian enthusiasm is never anonymous, never automatic, never excessive. It enhances the unity of the body and is an expression of the shared hope to participate in the glorious promises of God.
- A third problem is the lack of moral conduct and example in many athletes in the lime light. The list runs from cheating to the use of steroids, from lack of self-control to physical violence, swearing, stealing, adultery and promiscuity. I can think of many athletes that do NOT fit this list, but my concern is with those who do, those who appear on cereal boxes the same time they appear in court. The fascination with the athlete and the game is only temporarily interrupted and often excuses when it comes to problems, confrontations with the law, or even legal convictions. As long as the athletic record is upheld, the fascination remains. In contrast, the Christian fascination is fueled by the intentions of righteousness, goodness, and integrity. In the church, we can be fascinated by others but only if we place this fascination in the light of our love and surrender to Christ and God (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
Does this mean Christians should forsake sports and games? By no means. What would men do without baseball and football and golf and racing and soccer and … what would women do without the time they get for themselves while their husbands watch ESPN? What is needed is a higher moral consciousness among athletes, teams, coaches, managers, and spectators. Christians can contribute to this moral compass by pointing to Jesus Christ as the star of their own fascination; they can speak to the need for spiritual discernment; they can point out the problems of the athlete’s cult or the inadequacies of socially accepted salary structures; they can engage in public moral assessment; and they can engage as athletes in order to improve the image of the game. Do you think this portrayal is limited to the world of sports? Is it accurate? Is it necessary?
 See Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1984) 9; Ernst A. Bland, Olympic Story (London: Rockliff, 1948) 15. Carl Diem, Ewiges Olympia. Quellen zum olympischen Gedanken (Minden: August Lutzeyer, 1948) 23-29.
 Swaddling, Ancient Games, 12.