With the Olympic Games opening this week in London, and the world’s attention turned toward the performances of a few hundred elite athletes gathered for this quadrennial competition, it is a good time to consider the role of sports in our culture. It is safe to say that competitive sports – especially football, baseball and basketball – exert an outsized influence on our society, raking in millions in revenue and riveting the attention of young people in particular, who grow up emulating sports heroes, whether they are worthy role models or not.
Yet there is much good in sports, especially when young people are inspired to train and compete themselves, and better their physical and mental toughness. Sports afford an outlet for youthful energies that otherwise could go into destructive behavior or sexual excess. When placed in perspective, sports also can teach discipline, hard work, how to follow rules, share with teammates, self-sacrifice, sportsmanship, and “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” I still cherish memories from my Little League days, and my own boys now have learned much and grown in many ways from their Little League play.
Even the Vatican has recognized the value of sports, forming a “Church and Sport” section in 2004 under the Pontifical Council for the Laity. The goal is to highlight the positive elements of sports, and show how an informed spiritual life must be part of a fully integrated person – a healthy mind and spirit in a strong body. After all, St. Paul famously used sports metaphors for the spiritual journey of life:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Cor 9:24-26)
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me…” (2 Tim 4:7-8a)
As we watch the Olympics, and cheer for athletes from the USA, and hopefully appreciate the skills and guts of talents from other countries – even as we count the medals for “us” and “them” – let us remember that there are challenges greater than gaining the gold, and steps higher than the top of the winners’ podium. Sports, it is often said, are a microcosm of life, with all the human faculties brought into play in a competitive game. While there is truth in this insight, the larger lesson is that this life is also a sort of competition or race for the ultimate goal, the highest prize, which is “the crown of righteousness” St. Paul writes about. The ultimate finish line, goal post, point score, is heaven, and this life is the arena of play. It takes the ultimate in “sportsmanship” – that is, love of God and love of neighbor – to get across the goal.
Sports, in perspective, can teach us to work for that higher goal, with regular training, self-discipline, self-sacrifice and sights set on a higher goal. The ancient Olympics shared its name with the mount in the clouds where the gods resided. In our own way, we as Catholics believe in Olympus as heaven where the Trinity reigns. There is our goal and our home. Let the Games begin!