Sports are a cultural product, an expression of the creation mandate to design, organise and otherwise draw order out of chaos. What does godly participation in sports look like, and what must the Christian guard against?
The world has again turned its attention to the international stage of sports, with the recent UEFA Euro Cup, the Summer Olympics preparing to launch in Brazil, and FIFA’s World Cup qualifications already under way. On average, the Euros attract nearly 60 million viewers worldwide. The World Cup draws 3.2 billion global viewers, and the Olympics 6.8 billion worldwide, making it the most-watched international sporting event.
These major international tournaments are a celebration of ethnic diversity in the unity of the sport, and a practice inspired by the ancient Greeks. As early as 776 bc, the city of Olympia organized regular sporting events every four years, a period that was termed “Olympiads,” and from which we derive the Olympic Games. Historically, “the games were created to provide unity to the Hellenic world, which, at that time, was split into city-states which were constantly at war.” This gave rise to the Panhellenic Games, with competitive sports taking place every third year of each Olympiad at Delphi, and every two years at both the Isthmus of Corinth and at Nemea. According to the scholars of the Olympic Museum:
These Games were special because they brought the Greek world together (pan = all, hellene = Greek) at a time when Greece was not a single state… From Greece and the colonies (in Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor), people travelled to take part in or attend these Games, inspired by the shared feeling of belonging to the same culture or religion.
These ancient games have since developed into our modern sports, with some such as hockey, basketball, and soccer being altogether new developments from the mid- to late- nineteenth century. Modern tournaments such as the Euro Cup, World Cup, and the Olympics take place every four years, continuing the Greek tradition.
Sports in Scripture
Clearly the world of sport is significant on a popular, international level. But where does it fit in the individual life of man? The apostle Paul made particular references to the sports in his writings:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
As the biblical researcher Gordon Franz writes, “Paul probably had the Isthmian Games in mind when he penned the words,” surmising, based on the history and geography of Corinth, that Paul had been exposed to the Isthmian Games in the spring of ad 51, during his visit to that Greek city, as recorded in Acts 18.
The Panhellenic Games were of “major religious significance,” as each of the games was “celebrated in honour of a specific god;” the competitions at Olympia and Nemea were dedicated to Zeus, Delphi honoured Apollo, and the Isthmus of Corinth paid tribute to Poseidon. The Isthmian Games took place in the stadium, theatre and in the hippodrome, but prior to any athletic participation, the participants were required to swear an oath of fair play in the Palaimon, an underground structure situated near the temple of Poseidon.
This is not the only time where Paul mentions athletics, he also writes:
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Tim. 2:5).
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
In his first epistle to the Corinthian church, Paul encouraged the believers to run the race of faith, to “compete” by their exercise of self-control (1 Cor. 9:24-27). An athlete was required to undergo “ten months of strict training and was subject to disqualification if he failed to do so.” Paul explains that “the athlete goes through such discipline to receive the victor’s ‘crown,’ a ‘perishable wreath.’ In contrast to that, Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘we get a crown that will last forever.’” As New Testament scholar Gordon D. Fee writes, “In this metaphor the Christian’s ‘crown’ is not some specific aspect of the goal but the eschatological victory itself… it should affect the way they live in the present.”The sports imagery that Paul uses, whether it was competitive racing, shadow boxing, body training, or merely following the rules of the sport, demonstrated a positive illustration for Christian living, for the perseverance of the saints. As a cultural product of the time, Paul recognized the difference between the sport and its religious significance, but instead of shunning the cultural activity, he simply reoriented its focus from paganistic idolatry to Christ-centered worship, diverting the recipients of the letter away from idolatrous religion, and towards the true glory of Christ. As archaeologist Oscar Broneer wrote:
The words in Greek have a more distinctly athletic flavor. To bring this out the passage [2 Tim. 4:6-8] might be rendered: “I have competed in the good athletic games; I have finished the foot race, I have kept the pledge (i.e. to compete honestly, with reference to the athletic oath). What remains to me is to receive the crown of righteousness, which has been put aside for me; it will be awarded to me by the Lord, the just umpire, on that day” (an allusion to the last day of the games when, presumably, the prizes were handed out to the winners).
Sport as a Cultural Expression
For both players and spectators, sport demonstrates a search for community and fellowship, a desire to gather with others who share passions, interests, attitudes and goals, cheering and playing together. In sport man also expresses his desire for competition and triumph, whether as a fan or a player. The euphoria of victory echoes in the heart of man in a fallen world.
Man cannot escape death, he cannot achieve victory over his sinful condition, but the desire for such victory echoes throughout man’s pursuits. The Panhellenic Games historically paid tribute to the pagan Greek gods, but the ancient Greek pantheon is no longer regarded in modern sports; instead, man is more directly worshiped, a more explicit humanism, whereas before, gods made in the image of sinful man were honored, a form of religious humanism. This worship was evident in man’s desire to usher in peace and unity on his own terms, it was the purpose of the Greek games.
In the same manner, in pursuit of peace and unity in the midst of our ethnic diversity, in an effort to bring an end to war and strife through sport, as the ancient Greeks are said to have briefly accomplished, man has expanded the practice of sport to an international celebration. It has become a part of his search for a diverse but united community, and for some a temporary escape from a fallen world. The violence of Euro Cup 2016, however, which spilled from the stands into the streets, is a reminder that there is no escape from man’s fallenness. Wherever man goes, he brings his sin there too. The racism and vitriol we find in a variety of sports only demonstrates that sinful man cannot bring about the peaceful unity of all peoples apart from the gospel, which claims that all men and women are equally created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).
Major sporting events are also cultural events, designed to influence public perception on social issues, such as the 2016 NFL Super Bowl which celebrated same-sex “marriage” as part of its fiftieth anniversary. Major League Soccer’s Orlando City, which honoured the victims of the terrorist attack in June, now promote LGBTQ acceptance by implementing the rainbow flag as part of their jersey design. Sympathy for those affected by this godless and horrific act does not require agreement with their ideology, but sports have become a platform by which the public can be influenced.
God created man with the creativity and capability to invent and participate in sports; it is one of various cultural products, and given that culture is the religion of the people externalized, sport can also be a form of worship. Regardless of where that worship is directed, the human body, as God’s creation, testifies to God’s creative handiwork. The very fact that sports can be ordered, officiated, and analyzed testifies to God’s image in man, for without God there can be no such thing as order, law or intelligibility. Our ability to produce sports testifies that man was created by One in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
However, sports, like anything else, can also be elevated to a position of idolatry, and as with all forms of idolatrous worship, used as a medium for the development of cult religion. Consider, for example, Apple’s latest TV ad in promotion of soccer, which states: “This is our story, this is our fate, this is our kingdom, this is our place, this is our freedom… this is our message, this is our faith, this is our voice, this is our names, this is our win.” The sport of soccer is communicated as the religion of the people, and the stadium and its fans are the kingdom.
But, again like all cultural products, sport can be redeemed, it can be used for the glory of God, where instead of paying tribute to man or to false gods, Christ can be glorified as Lord over all. Consider Stephen Curry, who upon receiving the MVP award of the 2015-16 NBA season, said:
First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for blessing me with the talents to play this game, with the family to support me, day in, day out. I’m His humble servant right now and I can’t say enough how important my faith is to who I am and how I play the game.
Any cultural product or endeavour that does not pay tribute to Christ’s Lordship, but rather exalts man as his own saviour, is corrupted by man’s own sin nature and does not honour God. Imagine a major tournament where we see people of all nations, united in the glorification of Christ, as partakers of true fellowship where the love and righteousness of Christ reigns. Such a reality is only possible by the transforming power of the gospel.
 UEFA, "UEFA EURO 2016 News," UEFA, June 27, 2012, accessed July 4, 2016, http://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro/news/newsid=1834666.html.
 FIFA, "2014 FIFA World Cup™ reached 3.2 billion viewers, one billion watched final," FIFA, December 16, 2015, accessed July 4, 2016, http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2015/m=12/news=2014-fifa-world-cuptm-reached-3-2-billion-viewers-one-billion-watched–2745519.html.
 IOC, London 2012 Olympic Games: Global Broadcast Report, 2012, accessed July 4, 2016, https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/IOC_Marketing/Broadcasting/London_2012_Global_%20Broadcast_Report.pdf
 The Olympic Museum, The Olympic Games in Antiquity, 2014, accessed July 4, 2016, https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Games/Ancient-Olympics/EN-report-658.pdf#_ga=1.238115392.1553829983.1467641110
 Gordon Franz, "Going for the gold: The apostle Paul and the Isthmian games," Associates for Biblical Research, July 16, 2012, accessed July 4, 2016, http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/07/16/Going-for-the-Gold-The-Apostle-Paul-and-the-Isthmian-Games.aspx.
 The Olympic Museum, The Olympic Games in Antiquity.
 Gordon Franz, "Going for the gold: The apostle Paul and the Isthmian games."
 Gordon D. Fee, NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 436-437.
 Fee, The First Epistle, 437.
 Oscar Broneer, "The Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games," Biblical Archaeologist 25, no. 1 (1962), 31.
 The Olympic Museum, The Olympic Games in Antiquity.
 Seth Millstein, "Super Bowl 50’s Pro-Gay Marriage Moment Sends A Beautiful Message About Love," Bustle, last modifies February 8, 2016, http://www.bustle.com/articles/140337-super-bowl-50s-pro-gay-marriage-moment-sends-a-beautiful-message-about-love.
 Alysha Tsuji, "Orlando City SC Pays Tribute to Nightclub Shooting Victims with Jerseys, Armbands, Video," USA Today Sports, last modified June 19, 2016, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/06/orlando-city-sc-pulse-shooting-victims-christina-grimmie-united-support-love.
 Apple United Kingdom, "Shot on iPhone – the beautiful game," last modified June 9, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThqAl8EfNGI.
 James Beattie, "Stephen Curry Praises Christ for Winning NBA MVP Award," Western Journalism, last modified May 11, 2015, http://www.westernjournalism.com/stephen-curry-praises-christ-for-winning-nba-mvp-award/.