Allow me to start with a disclaimer – I am not a sports person. In fact, I never enjoyed the many possible benefits of sports participation, since I was small and fearful. Instead, I was the butt of bullies’ towel snaps, royal flushes, and ben-gay in the jock strap hi-jinks.
My exclusion from playing sports led to a disinterest, if not disdain, for spectator sports. I carried the caricature of the mindless screaming fan who, failing to grow up or forge his own identity, got stuck in the identity moratorium of his teens, and found his only identity in sports fandom. Insult his team and you were insulting him. That’s a tough image to shake, especially if you watch football beer commercials. In truth, I still view spectator sports as largely a serious waste of time.
Candidly though, I waste my time on movies and games (both board and electronic), so I’m not allowing for a little leisure activity. But I wish that people would admit to their own wastage of time on spectator sports. Sure, actually *playing* sports can forge character, and I am all for that, but mere cheering?
The amount of vicarious excitement and idolatry of modern sporting, including the Olympics, ought to be acknowledged, and even spurned by Christians. I realize that saying such a thing sounds as unChristian as questioning whether your country should go to war in the Middle East, but it needs to be said. Here are my reasons for spurning the Olympics.
1. Spectator sports is more entertainment than inspiration
The first defense offered by sports fans to my accusations is that sports are good for people, they form character. The problem with this defense is that it confuses watching sports with playing – sure, the guy you are watching is a perfect specimen of health, but your fat couch potato torso is not. Spectating doesn’t teach you teamwork, perseverance or good sportsmanship, all laudable benefits of actually playing.
A second response is that sports are inspiring – watching athletes with great skill and abilities motivates us all to work hard and be our best. I’ll admit that some of that is true, but how many hours of sports are you gonna watch before you actually get up and move that flab? I get inspired by great acting and movies too, but you won’t catch me excusing my inactivity because I am still gathering inspiration.
A third and last response is that watching sports together is fun. No argument there, and some fun is good for you – all work and no play, as it is said. And I’m not saying we should stop watching sports – just move it down from it’s pedestal. There are plenty of good things to have fun and fellowship around – like board games, where you actually do more than passively shout at the screen. You might actually (gasp) use your mind.
Now, I know you sports fans will argue that you DO use your mind when analyzing stats and strategies and plays. But come on, how many of us are really doing the Billy Beane thing?
Here’s why, beyond having a little fun, you are wasting your time: you ought to be analyzing and strategizing around getting on with your own life and purposes, not just wasting it being an armchair quarterback.
Hey, I’ll agree that people idolize movie stars and movies, as well as other diversions. I just wish that sports fans, even Olympic fans, would admit that they too are mostly wasting time in spectating.
One of my main beefs with modern consumer culture is that it idolizes youth and physical beauty. It’s superficial. As most of us are aware, in youth, we value physical prowess – in fact, some people never move beyond this external value, always harking back to their ‘glory days’ in high school (apologies to Bruce Springsteen).
If, like me, you buy into a tripartite model of man (spirit, soul, and body), the soul, i.e. the emotions, will, and intellect, are the next realm of human ability that we can develop. Beyond the mere outward, physical appearance, we can come to value intellect and natural abilities of the mind.
It is more inspiring and enlightening, generally speaking, to hear great ideas than it is to watch Micheal Phelps win yet another medal. Pursuing knowledge to understand our universe, solving challenges to the survival and flourishing of life, and bringing hope-giving ideas to the world, that’s the kind of excellence we ought to be valuing, at least, more than mere athletic ability. How impressive is sports excellence if the soul is petty, selfish, and filled with vain glory?
Actually, any kind of idolatry eventually ends up harming humans. Look at the poor health of supermodels.
And if you think our pursuit of ultimate sports does not have a demeaning effect on our athletes, perhaps you should read Lochte’s mom says ‘one-night stands’ typical for swimmer (USA Today).
“He’s not able to give fully to a relationship because he’s always on the go.”
In fact, many articles on the ‘Bacchic orgy’ of the Olympics have come to light, indicating that 70% of the athletes are involved in illicit sex during the Olympics – so much so that for each of these games, there is now a standing order for 100,000 condoms.
In fact, an anonymous male rower who participated in the Athens games has written an entire book about life in side the Olympic village. On sex, he writes:
“Sex, and plenty of it, increasing exponentially through the Games as more and more athletes finish competing,” ~ The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of Olympic Excellence
Then there’s the Chinese weightlifter who wept openly and in humiliation on TV for failing his country after only earning a Silver medal. Having been manipulated by his own culture and Government’s political idolatry, he became an emotional casualty (one of many) in a game of nationalistic one-upsmanship.
Or how about the Chinese diving star who was not told that her grandparents had died over a year ago so that she could stay on track. Family vs. sports? Sports wins?!? She also wasn’t told that her mother is battling breast cancer. I understand why these things were kept from her, but at what point do we say “it’s only sports”?
And let’s not forget the flood of sex and child trafficking that comes with any large international event – this is another toll of our grand efforts at getting humanity ‘together’ without God. I would rather cancel sporting events than enable human trafficking to have such opportunities.
Let’s move to arguments that apply directly to Christians. As the opening scripture states, the prizes of this life are temporal – when you’re dead, does it really matter?
One of my favorite motivational authors was Stephen Covey (RIP 2012). In his book First Things First, he discusses the goals and values that have demonstrably led to human happiness and fulfillment. He has generalized these into four areas – to
- Leave a legacy
In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. ~ Luke 15:10
5. Competition is the world’s way to betterment, God’s is cooperation and service
One of the subtler messages of modern sports idolatry is that personal excellence, achievement, and superiority over others is admirable. But competition feeds the motive of putting one’s self first, not putting others first. That’s the worldly value system which Jesus denies.
If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all. ~ Mark 9:35
Quite honestly, being the best you can be, and NOT giving glory and service to God is selfish and vain. And we often laud those who achieve, sometimes at any cost, rather than praise those who remain humble and thankful.
There are plenty, perhaps even a majority of athletes, who maintain a humble stance, but our idolatry of them pushes them directly towards vain glory. This idolatry of ‘personal greatness’ goes directly against the servant mentality of which Jesus speaks.
The real bottom line here is that competition does not produce peace, cooperation does. And not just teamwork in BEATING the other countries, but in serving them. The competition of the Olympics is, in some sense, at cross purposes with creating fellowship. As long as winning is the emphasis over serving, we are still tacitly supporting the me-first motivation.
6. God identifies with the powerless and marginalized – the losers, not the winners
The world may celebrate the winners, but Jesus said that his kingdom is for the poor and outcast, which is most notably seen in the opening of His first lengthy public discourse, the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6):
Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Let me be clear – I am not saying that being an athlete is a meaningless endeavor, or that we should not rejoice with those who accomplish rare deeds after sustained effort. What I am saying is that our zeal to vicariously share their victory is really a much hollower goal (Christianly speaking) than to empathize with those who do NOT win, in the Olympics, and life.
7. The Olympics is a modern Tower of Babel – human ‘perfection’ and solidarity without God
And that brings me to my final point – the real underlying inspirational cache of the Olympics is the idea that we can promote peace among nations by entering into communication, submitting to common rules of fair play, and competing with one another. And there is some truth to that.
But let me say this to the Christian reader – there is no long term, ultimate peace among humans without God and his regenerative power, because the root of war is human sin, not just the many other external influences like ignorance, poverty, inequity, and limited resources.
This is the whole point of the Tower of Babel story – men were unified without God, and set out to build a monument to their greatness. But this type of idolatry, though perhaps cast as enobling, actually ends up in ruin – such godless and well meaning systems as Soviet and Chinese regimes are the inevitable result of efforts at human solidarity and peace without God.
This false spirituality (a type of humanism) is exactly what is behind the modern Olympics (only in their 30th recurrence).
The Greek philosophy and ideals behind the Olympics, are a noble, but still godless effort to accomplish some peace. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, wrote the following ode to the Olympics:
“O Sport, You are Peace!
You forge happy bonds between the peoples
by drawing them together in reverence for strength
which is controlled, organised and self disciplined.
Trough you the young of the entire world
learn to respect one another,
and thus the diversity of national traits becomes a source
of generous and peaceful emulation! “
Even the Olympic Charter states this as its purpose:
Art. 3. “The goal of Olympism is to place everywhere sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. To this effect, the Olympic Movement engages, alone or in cooperation with other organizations and within the limits of its means, in action to promote peace.”
Art. 6. “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
I am not attempting to be a killjoy or just a reactive Bible thumper – I am truly concerned about the amount of human energy spent on spectator sports, the impact of idolatry on those caught in the unrealistic values system of unreasonable expectations, and the false hope and spirituality it offers to mankind.
There is one hope for mankind, and that is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian, are you allowing this false hope to buoy your emotions while not paying attention to the true hope of nations?
In his name the nations will put their hope. ~ Matthew 12:21