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Where the track leads from Rio

26 August 2016

As the Olympic participants head home from Rio, Nick Watson explores the growing relationship between sport and the Churches


Lord of the rings: statue of Christ the Redeemer seen between the Olympic symbol, Rio 2016

Lord of the rings: statue of Christ the Redeemer seen between the Olympic symbol, Rio 2016

THE magnificent and imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing 38 metres high, has dominated images of the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. Its significance is both symbolic and ironic, given that the founder of the Modern Olympics (revived in 1896), Baron de Coubertin, championed the Games as a “universal humanistic religion”.

Despite the number of athletes expressing their personal religiosity through ritual and gesture, sport for many in the secular age has become a “surrogate religion” — a source of individual and national identity, and existential purpose.

In his book If Christ came to the Olympics, the historian William Baker suggests that “He would be impressed with the quasi-religious aspects of the Olympic rituals and sterling athletic performances on the field, but He would also be uneasy with some less positive features of the Games. He might well be inspired to bring out His whip against the modern scene, for He would most certainly recognise some idolatrous tendencies embedded in today’s Olympism.”

Strong words; but some commentators have gone further, to suggest that there are irreconcilable differences between the Christian faith and the ideology of Modern Olympism, based as it is on an eclectic mix of ancient Green mythology, pagan ritualism, social Darwinism, and the Victorian enthusiasm for Muscular Christianity.

We must, of course, acknowledge that, for many — participants and spectators alike — the Games offer an outlet for displays of human excellence and beauty in sporting movement that should be celebrated, as well as a sense of community and belonging, and the coming together of peoples from diverse backgrounds. They may also bring economic prosperity for some, although those who live in the favelas (slums) of Rio would strongly contest this last point.

But the Games also seem to be plagued by issues such as the Russian doping scandal, and the ongoing social, economic, and political problems faced by the host country, Brazil. In short, while the Games have many positive aspects, critical questions need to be asked with regard to the dominant spirit that underlies modern-day sporting endeavour.


GENERALLY speaking, the relationship between sport and Christianity has waxed and waned over the past two centuries. Following the Puritan dislike of sports (mainly those associated with public houses and betting) in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the Victorian authors and keen sportsmen Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes (who was a boxing coach), who founded the socio-theological movement of Muscular Christianity c.1850.

This had its roots in the Christian social movement, and sought to develop young “strong and moral men” who would become captains of industry and leaders of the British Empire, and to attract young men into an Anglican Church that was perceived to have been weakened by a culture of effeminacy. Public schools such as Eton and Uppingham helped to embed this ideology in Victorian educational and political theory and policy.

Muscular Christianity also had a significant and sustained impact on the development and character of Anglo-American sport and physical-education policy.


SOME modern Christian leaders, such as Mark Driscoll, who is based in the United States, have used the ideology selectively to endorse violent sports, such as Mixed Martial Arts, as an appropriate missional and ecclesiological tool. None the less, the potential for sport as a force for good is clearly demonstrated in the UK through the work of organisations such as Christians in Sport (CIS) and Sports Chaplaincy UK (SCUK), and recent initiatives from Churches across the denominational spectrum.

In collaboration with CIS, SCUK, and Sport England, in 2014 the Church of England, led by its recently appointed “Sports Ambassador” Bishop Tony Porter (also the ex-chaplain of Manchester City FC), convened a conference at Loughborough University to explore the significance and role of sport in modern culture; in particular, how the Church of England can implement missional and service-based strategies.

A subsequent survey by Sport England, Sport England: Sport and the Church of England research, in the diocese of London, examined community engagement and available space for sports activities, and provided recommendations to further the development of sports ministry by the Church of England. These included improving links between churches and church schools, and identifying needs in the local community by assessing demographic and social trends, in order to inform the design and development of future church-sport interventions.

Similarly, the Church of Scotland gathered clergy, academics and administrators to produce a report on sport that was presented to the General Assembly in 2014. Pope St John Paul II launched the “Church and Sport” office of the Pontifical Council of the Laity at the Vatican in 2004; this office has hosted international conferences at the Vatican, and has also published a number of books. Another RC initiative is the John Paul II Foundation for Sport, commissioned in 2000 by Pope Benedict XVI.

The inter-denominational fixed-term UK church group More than Gold, which was chaired by Lord Mawhinney, brought together representatives from the RC Church, the Church of England, the Salvation Army, and the Baptist and Methodist Churches to serve athletes and spectators at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.


IN SHORT, sport is on the agenda of the worldwide Church, and a fresh and vibrant ecumenical spirit is in play.

This has led to an exponential increase in sport-faith publications and practical and Church-based initiatives over the past decade. This trend is reflected in the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity, currently (24-28 August) being hosted by York St John University, in partnership with the Bible Society. It is bringing together more than 180 delegates from 24 nations.

The aims of this event are to:

  • Encourage global collaboration between academics, practitioners, politicians, clergy, administrators, and athletes.
  • Produce quality academic and practitioner publications that have societal impact.
  • Through intentional mentoring and collaboration, develop individuals in their sphere of influence.
  • Affect a “culture shift” in modern sport through the sharing of ideas and practices, and a “coming together” of individuals from across the academic disciplines and all streams and denominations of Christianity, culminating in an inclusive and ecumenical event.

Keynote speakers include Professor Tony Campolo, the Revd John Boyers (chaplain of Manchester United football club for the past 25 years), the Paralympian Anne-Wafula Strike, and Bishop James Jones, reflecting on his position as chairman of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

The address by Professor Brian Bolt (of Calvin College, in the US), on “The Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life” offers delegates practical advice on how to think about sports participation by examining, for example, how sport can be a means of glorifying God, or of spiritual formation, when a balanced theology of the body and play is adopted. It is interesting to reflect on how many of the tenets of the declaration (published in 2014) emerged from Victorian Britain.

We need a renaissance of the “play” ethic that underpins all healthy competitive sport, and a holistic understanding of the human body as made in the image of God, to inform our theological reflection on sports participation. And initiatives such as the Global Congress are essential in ensuring that academic theological reflection on sport filters down to playing-fields, church halls, stadia, and school PE lessons.


THE groundswell of interest in sport, and the resultant ecumenical dialogue, will be celebrated today at a sport-themed service (part of the Global Congress) in York Minster. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, will deliver a sport-faith sermon, and Ms Strike and the ex-English Premier League footballer Linvoy Primus will be interviewed about their life as Christians in élite sport.

It is to be hoped that this event, held in one of the finest medieval buildings in Europe, will act as a catalyst for a culture shift in sport, which today is too often plagued by ethical and moral dilemmas, and by an idolatrous spirit that would not sit comfortably at the feet of Christ the Redeemer — the place where Cardinal Orani Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro blessed the Olympic torch at the genesis of the 2016 Games.


Dr Nick J. Watson is Senior Lecturer in Sport, Culture and Religion at York St John University and Convener of the inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity.

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