Keeping up the Faith

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Those of lofty stature will be severed, and the haughty ones brought low … And there shall come forth a shoot out. (Isaiah 10:33-11:1) So it was Isaiah who first thought of cup upsets and penalty shoot-outs (at least, I like to think he did). A man of religion putting his stamp on the world of sport – not actually such a rarity. Sport has always born the hallmark of religion, and still does. The Olympics Games started off as a dedication to the Greek gods but was branded a pagan festival once Christianity become the Roman Empire’s official faith. The emperor Theodosius banned the Games in 393. On these shores too, sport and religion have been intertwined as far back as you look. Winner, in his book Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, makes the remarkable discovery that Victorian public-school boys were introduced to football to limit the time available for ‘impure’ thoughts. This promotion of ‘clean’ recreation, into which the clergy had a significant input, led to the founding of church teams that evolved into Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City and a host of other modern-day clubs.But not all religious influence in sport has been for the good. The cities of Glasgow and Belfast have been blighted by sectarian violence for generations, that spreads to – or even emanates from – the football grounds. Your identity is defined by whether you’re a ‘Cath’ or a ‘Prod’ and which of the Glaswegian clubs you support – not that you have a choice, as Maurice Johnston found out. Johnston, having played for the traditionally Catholic club Celtic earlier in his career, moved from the French club Nantes in July 1989 to become one of the first Catholics to play for Rangers, seen as a Protestant club. The striker was branded a traitor in parts of the Celtic heartland, but the case turned out to be something of a watershed for Rangers, who only then started to bring in players irrespective of their affiliation.Religion is thus not an inevitable obstacle. It can be a means by which to dismantle the the problems that religion can provoke. In 2002, tennis players Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, a Muslim from Pakistan, and Amir Hadad, an Israeli Jew, fought off criticism to team up as a doubles pair and reach the third round of Wimbledon. “The best part about sports is that they don’t let politics or religion interfere,” Qureshi told a national newspaper. “Sport is free. Everybody comes together. All the cultures and religions, black or white. And you should just keep it free. Everybody’s invited.” Can sport and religion benefit each other, though? In an assembly in my last year at school, an amateur tennis player and practising Christian came to speak about how his relationship with his creator helped him in his sport. He claimed that sport should be a way of “pleasing” Him by taking the body He gave us to the limits of its ability. I recall that our head of Religious Studies walked out in anger at the speaker’s naivety, and quite rightly so. To think that the Almighty delights in seeing his creatures run 100m in 9.77 seconds is an absurdity, for the purpose of sport is more than that, something more central to the very world we inhabit.The relationship between sport and religion may sometimes have been one of violence and corruption but it is also one of freedom and conciliation. What sport brings is an activity with the potential to act as a leveller, a bridge between faiths and races, an opportunity for rivals to make peace – just as the British and German troops did in the First World War trenches, legend has it, by dropping their guns and kicking a ball around on Christmas Day. George Orwell wasn’t totally right. Sport is not always war minus the shooting; more often, it’s life minus the war.ARCHIVE: 3rd week MT 2005

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