God and coaching

Originally I planned to ponder on Christianity and modern sport last month in order to contribute to the holiday season celebrations. For a number of reasons I didn’t, which, owing to a former skier’s public confession, appears to have been a proverbial blessing in disguise.

At the beginning of this year Virpi Sarasvuo (née Kuitunen), the most decorated Finnish cross-country skier over the past decade, embarked on a literary career as a sports columnist for the biggest Finnish newspaper. Her very first text touched on the ethos of elite sport of which she had taken leave two winters ago.

Driven by sportive demons, top-notch athletes inhabit a planet of their own, Sarasvuo averred. The elite athlete ‘perceives the world through his or her aims’ and expects everybody else, including family members and friends, to adjust their lives so as to meet the athlete’s idiosyncratic needs. If they don’t, they end up being former family members and friends. ‘Your gaze is as narrow as that of a caveman when he goes hunting.’ (Helsingin Sanomat, 15 January.)

Granted, Sarasvuo tested positive for a forbidden substance during her career, and for some observers a doping offence may well serve as a proof that one’s competitive instinct has veered into an unhealthy direction. Seriously speaking, however, the fact that athletes occasionally test positive has nothing to do with moral issues.

In the realm of sport, the end has always justified the means, just as the caveman remained blessedly ignorant of the edicts of ‘fairness’ in hunting.

Christianity, of course, replaced the law of the jungle with an assortment of wonderful ideals, starting with the exhortation to ‘love your enemies’. (Unfortunately I don’t have enough space at my disposal to discuss the impact of Judaism on Christianity.) Alas, a serious athlete faces enemies in every race, and such enemies are best to be destroyed; turning the other cheek would amount to instant surrender, if not worse.

There is indeed a growing body of literature to support the thesis of sport as a fundamentally anti-Christian activity. For example, Verner Møller and Ask Vest Christensen’s Mål, medicin og moral (2007) is based on extensive interviews with Danish athletes, and as the authors repeatedly point out, the unchristian essence of modern sport is a major attraction for athletes and spectators alike. Doing sport and watching sport provide a momentary escape from the humdrum reality of daily life which, by and large, is still undergirded by Christian ethics in the West.

Not all athletes would agree with the Danish view, though. Ryan Hall is one of the fastest marathon runners ever and, I might add, the great white hope in an event dominated by African athletes. Last year Hall made headlines by listing God as his coach and insisting on God being a ‘real person’, that is, fully capable of overseeing his training schedule. Previously, ‘I was a runner who happened to be a Christian’, Hall elaborated. ‘I needed to be a Christian who happened to be a runner.’

How to reconcile his seemingly sincere and fervent faith with the thoroughly secular fanaticism of Virpi Sarasvuo and many, many other athletes?

Obviously there’s no room for reconciliation here. The American marathoner wouldn’t be the first athlete to look back on his sportive career with trepidation. ‘Was that me? Did I really say like that? What did all those 100-mile running weeks have to do with my faith?’ As for scholars and commentators, we just ought to keep up the good work by preaching against the caveman’s mentality that lurks behind the façade of fair play and other similarly misleading concepts.

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