Sports and the Christian Life

Swimmer Katie Ledecky - PHOTO by Michael Hoyt

Swimmer Katie Ledecky – PHOTO by Michael Hoyt

The pageantry of the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last evening was again a wonderful celebration of harmony and friendship, hope and goodwill among mankind. As we cheer on some of our local athletes, we can also learn many valuable lessons from this international competition, which in antiquity began 776 years before the birth of Jesus, and from sports in general.

In the Jubilee Year of 2000, which included an official Jubilee of Sports, Saint John Paul II remarked to a group of athletes that sports are an important means to “the overall development of the person and a very useful element in building a more human society. A sense of brotherhood, generosity, honesty and respect for one’s body – virtues that are undoubtedly essential for every good athlete – help to build a civil society where antagonism is replaced by healthy competition, where meeting is preferred to conflict, and honest challenge to spiteful opposition.”

In watching past Olympics, I have been intrigued by interview after interview of the victorious athletes. One by one they explained how they had set aside everything else in life to concentrate their full energies, attention and prowess on developing their God-given gifts and honing their expertise in a particular area to a precision that would make them the best. Each repeated as if part of a refrain: “practice, practice, practice!”

Our everyday lives off the field are much like that experience. At the core of faithful virtuous living is practice. We need to train ourselves, “to get in shape,” says Pope Francis, “so that we can face every situation in life undaunted, bearing witness to our faith.”

The old adage “practice makes perfect” is applicable not only to track and field, or the gymnastics or swimming competitions, but also to the acquisition of virtue and strengthening of faith. That is, the virtuous life and perseverance in the faith depend on our developing, honing, focusing and orienting our response to God.

Saint Paul, perhaps out of his experience in traveling to Greek cities or his own youthful experience of sports, often described the struggle of living the faith in terms of sporting events, particularly the foot races that were so much a part of athletic competition in his time and that continue to form a significant part of Olympic competition in our day. “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus,” said the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 20:24). Then, near the end of his life Paul said, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

As Saint John Paul affirmed, “Every Christian is called to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel. But to succeed in this, he must persevere in prayer, be trained in virtue and follow the divine Master in everything.”

Three years ago, when Rio was then host to World Youth Day 2013, Pope Francis also urged the young people there to be true and active “athletes of Christ,” imploring them as missionary disciples not to simply stand on the sidelines or passively play defense. “Go on the offensive!” he said. “Play down the field, build a better world, a world of brothers and sisters, a world of justice, of love, of peace, of fraternity, of solidarity.” In our own lives, we too want to “play offense,” that is, we want to be active and keep moving forward with the Gospel of love and truth as we make our pilgrim journey to the heavenly city.

Another lesson to be learned from the Olympics and other sports is a tradition that I believe is sorely missed in society today. As noted previously, in too many sectors of society today it seems that anything goes, with intense partisan division and on-going animosity. It is said that politics is a contact sport, but even in sports there is an expectation of fairness and good conduct. Playing hard does not need to mean playing dirty.

Quite to the contrary, in the Olympics and other sports, athletes will play hard, but they will also play under a code of sportsmanship and decorum. Then, at the end of the contest, the athletes will come together and shake hands. This is a practice which our culture would do well to extend to the whole of society.

By coming together from all the nations of the world in the diversity of our shared humanity, the participants of the Olympic Games give us the hope and real-life example that a better world is possible.