Is sport a religion?
According to Ninian Smart, a religion is ‘a deliberate, highly ritualized regimen of wilful ignorance and stubborn adherence to speculation.’ Can this definition be applied to sport in general and the Olympics in particular?
When a teenager takes an interest in the Olympics because their favourite swimmer or gymnast is taking part, is it because they believe that their hero has to win? Does their desperate desire to be right about their hero take over to the point at which they cannot ignore the Olympics, even become obsessed by the Olympics?
When an athlete competes in the Olympics, it is, of course, about winning, but why do they take part in the first place? Surely it has some connection to the belief, or peculation, of their trainer, teammates, parents and fans that they will win.
When someone becomes a religious believer or commits themselves to a religious order, Smart would say that they are showing the same tendencies as an Olympics fan—they want to see whether what they believe is right, feeling that it is better to take an interest and be part of it in order to be able to say ‘I was right’, when the time comes, than not. They are similar to the athlete because, he or she also responds to other people’s speculation that there must be something more to this world, that maybe we are the ‘Chosen People’ and will gain something from having this faith and
taking part in this ritual.
Obviously, religion and sport are completely different ideologically. Taking part in the Olympics does not require the belief that there is an all-powerful being who we will meet in the afterlife. Neither does a religious person have to be physically fit
or committed to a healthy lifestyle. The types of people involved in religion are diverse, as they are in sport, but physicality does not come into it, just as spirituality is not a prerequisite of taking part in the Olympics.
Just as there is no basis for faith, however, there seems to be no basis for taking part in the Olympics. Where is the evidence that there is a God? Some would say ‘all around’, some would say ‘nowhere’, but, scientifically speaking, of course, there is none. Faith is defined as a ‘belief that does not rest on logical proof or material
evidence’. A supporter of an athlete in the Olympics has just as little basis for their faith in the athlete as a religious person does in God himself. There is no hard evidence that they will win and that the supporter’s belief is sound, but the latter continues to believe because they want to, perhaps have to. To lose faith in their hero seems wrong, just as losing faith in God seems wrong to a religious
person, even if there appears to be no reason to have this faith in the first place.
Many atheists see no point in believing in God: He does not exist and the only reason to believe in him is to comfort oneself about the inevitability of death. What is the point in watching the Olympics? There really is little point. Millions of people do, however, often because so many people around them are taking an interest too.
Both religion and the Olympics share a group mentality. Whether actually in the Olympic team or watching it at home, you are bound to be surrounded by people taking an interest in the same thing. If enough people believe in something and follow a ritual (in this case,watching or training for the Olympics), then you are bound to find yourself doing it also. If you grow up in a religious family, there is a strong likelihood that you will be religious also, and the same is true of sport; if you belong to a family involved with sport, there is a high chance that the Olympics will be an important event for you.
Just as religion involves various rituals and routines, attending Church every Sunday for example, so, too, do the Olympics, whether you are involved in an event (in which case you training would become your version of a religious ritual) or simply watching
it on television (which can itself be seen as a form of ritual, with repeated patterns of behaviour). There are also rules, as with every religion: for example, every athlete must be a legal citizen of the country for which they are competing, which is perhaps equivalent to being initiated into your religion in order for you to reap the benefits. Sport and religion share the idea that if you do not obey the rules then the rewards will not be yours.
Dedication is, perhaps, the most important component of any religion and of any athlete planning on taking part in the Olympics. If an athlete is dedicated to his or her sport, if an athlete practises every day, then and only then will he or she have a chance of becoming the best, of becoming a gold medallist. If a religious believer does not pray every day, professing their dedication to God, he or she may not achieve salvation.
Critics argue that religion has been responsible for many terrible things, for example the Crusades or the 9/11 attacks. The Olympics, in contrast, could be argued to promote a healthy lifestyle; what’s wrong with children or teenagers emulating their favourite sports stars? There are certainly worse people to look to for inspiration and motivation in our day-to-day lives. They are not all perfect, however. Do you want your child to emulate someone who took performance-enhancing drugs in order to achieve what they wanted to? There is also the question of whether the Olympics cause the modern problem of celebrity obsession to worsen. When these
sports stars are thrown at us from every angle for weeks at a time in the lead-up to, and during, the Olympics, it is impossible for us not to become obsessed with the athletes, their lives and how they will perform in the Olympics. For some fans, this can become the starting point for potentially dangerous lifestyles, thinking the only
way to look good is to exercise every day but without benefiting from the nutritional regimen that athletes are careful to follow. Neither religion nor the Olympics are evil, but not everything they promote is good.
While religion and the Olympics are very different, there are some definite similarities between the two: the fact that it requires great dedication to be truly involved with either, that there are rules and rituals and that they must work within group systems. We must remember, however, that there is a huge difference between
having faith in something and taking an interest in it. Perhaps this is a result of our secular society. We have lost our faith and created a gap within ourselves—where can we worship when what we have traditionally worshipped is now believed by so many to be redundant? This may be why the Olympics has taken on such a religious form; we are trying to recapture our spirituality, with exercise as our prayers and athlete-celebrities as our gods.
By Elinor Bendell