Dips in the Forty Foot and Banna Strand. Surfers in Sligo. All those thousands who took part in the GOAL Mile Challenges dotted around the country. Christmas Day clearly isn’t what it used to be. In a society increasingly swaddled by secularisation, our observance of religious festivals has undergone a sea change.
For more and more of us, old traditions that leaned on prayer and pulpits have been supplemented, or even replaced, by visits to the beach, hikes in parks or up mountains or maybe just walks or jogs around our localities — much of it with twin benefit for our own physical health and charity towards our fellow man.
For everyone who demonstrated this devotion to sport and exercise actively there were hundreds if not thousands more who did so from the comfort of their homes this past week. Darts, cricket, rugby, American football, soccer, horse racing. It may be sport’s slow season but the need to worship at its altar is never sated.
It’s hold on our hearts if not our souls can be total.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in India which was gripped this year by a ridiculous level of mass hysteria when the great Sachin Tendulkar finally called it a day. Among the banners seen throughout his career was that declaring; ‘Cricket is our religion: Sachin is our god’.
In Wisconsin two years ago, one poll found that only Abraham Lincoln and Jesus were more popular than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers. The difference between the football player — who left Santa Claus and Mother Teresa for dust — and the Son of God was an insignificant one per cent in the approval ratings.
Jesus saves but Rogers delivers.
It may be deemed trite to compare the two in such a manner but academics have come to the conclusion that sport confers on spectators many of the same benefits that religion has always done. Sydney Harris expounded 30 years ago on how Karl Marx’s remark about politics being the opium of the people needed to be updated with sport assuming the role of drug of choice.
Nigel Barber is of a mind to agree. The Irish-born author has made headlines for a body of work that claimed atheism would “replace religion” as the dominant belief system by the year 2041 and among the reasons for such a controversial stance was the ever-increasing exposure of the masses to the likes of medication, entertainment and psychotherapy. And sport.
The website psychologytoday.com has quoted the authors of a 2001 study which examined the psychology and social impact of spectators. “The similarities between sport fandom and organised religion are striking,” they said. “Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”
Be that as it may, millennia of faith has already been observed so it seems likely we will continue to see a blurring of the lines between religion and sport.
Take declarations of faith at sporting events: guaranteed to meet with approval by some and scorn by others. It was thus in 2005 when, after AC Milan saw off Liverpool in the Champions League final, Kaka dropped to his knees and revealed a t-shirt bearing the legend: ‘I belong to Jesus’ although that pales in comparison to the more evangelical examples in the USA.
Foremost among them has been Tim Tebow, the one-time quarterback who wore band aids under his eyes bearing biblical references and, though his star has waned since his ejection by the New York Jets, the baton has been taken up by the likes of Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin.
Manny Pacquaio, the Filipino boxer, went as far last month as to declare his belief that God was using famous athletes such as Tebow, Lin and himself to help save souls. Nobody can quibble with personally-held beliefs but airing ones like that in a sporting arena leaves cold a large segment of fans who, regardless of their own beliefs, are of the view that religion and politics have no place in its midst.
“Everyone has the right to be themselves,” said Lin when asked about Pacquiao‘s insistence on bringing his faith front and centre. “I think for him to talk about what’s important to him, I don’t think anybody should be able to say what he can or can’t say who he is as a person. As long as he’s trying to be real, that’s fine.”
Fine, yes, but so is the line.
People like Katie Taylor and Andrew Trimble have spoken openly about their beliefs and it is impossible to find fault with that given we in the media constantly harp on about the impenetrable walls of blandness that can surround our modern-day sporting stars. Using sport as a platform to preach is another thing entirely, especially when there are those who believe the games we play provide more than enough in the way of spiritual sustenance.
Pierre De Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics said that: “For me, sport was a religion ... with a religious sentiment”. There’s no doubt that sport can assume an almost unhealthy hold on us at times but, like it or not, there are millions who clearly agree with him and Christmas today is another example of that.