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Sport as religion

If religion is the opiate of the masses, modern sport is certainly its double dose, writes Vipul Mudgal.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2006 02:26 IST

For the faithful, a trip to Germany is like a pilgrimage. And for the next few weeks, soccer is the only truly devotional activity in many temples and monasteries around the world.

Faith and football sometimes seem inseparable. Goal scorers often kneel down in thanksgiving and some winners routinely form prayer huddles. The game upholds its own values, invocations and fellowship. It has rituals, sacraments and exalted halls of fame. With deities, devotees and scholars, soccer is a religion in its own right.   

An astute clergy acknowledges the prowess. Throughout Germany, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches are offering assembly line confession booths and foreign language services, all in the vicinity of live action. The puritans regret that the multitudes swarm the nearest pub rather than the chapels customized for them. But frankly, who needs religion after a great game?

It is not just soccer

Baseball and basketball in the US, Cricket in the sub-continent, Kung Fu in China or Sumo wrestling in Japan, enjoy comparable devotion. Throughout history, places of worship have patronized martial arts like Karate or Thai boxing. Japanese arts of judo and aikido show the spiritual path just as yoga joins body with soul. Nike, Apollo and Hermes are the Greek Gods of victory, archery and athletics. Indians, Romans and Chinese have their own deities of leisure and sport.

But 21st century sport is raring to break free of that old bondage. The functional unity between the temple and games is under threat. The archetypal Indian akharas, once patronized by the temples, mosques or gurdwaras, are thriving under corporate sponsorships. Sports have not replaced the need for religion as yet, but they are shaking off their dependence on the church to emerge as a parallel cultural force. (See story below right).

Competing paradigms

Modern sports demand so much perfection of body; so much strength of mind and so much spirit of team work that the end product blurs the dividing line between leisure and worship. Sports compete for cultural space with communions and congregations because they are also about the elevation of mind, body and soul.

Sports, like religion, promote a moral community of their own. They bring people together and offer them relief and motivation. (See story below left). The stadium - and the virtual arena - reinforces patriotism and nationalism, once a preserve of ‘civil religions.’ To sports sociologist Joseph Price, a baseball stadium in the US serves as a “miniature rehearsal for the game of life…”

Kids come into baseball, cricket or soccer, just as they inherit cultures and religious beliefs. That’s why the two super-powers showcased their political systems in the Olympic arenas during the Cold War. Cultural battles between England and Ireland, China and Japan or India and Pakistan are still fought in the playground. The warring groups treat a victory as reinforcement of their ‘national values’ but take a defeat in their stride!

During the Cold War, the US churches helped the government in its fight against ‘atheist’ USSR that was rising as a sporting power. Many countries are successfully using sports as a hook to keep minority youths from indulging in anti-social activities. It has been established that team sports for teenagers offer many qualities of “gang activities” such as risk taking, celebrating triumphs, accepting losses and psychological fulfillment.  

Secular values

When the YMCA movement began more than a century ago, it sought to link salvation with physical well-being. Akharas or sport rings in temples, mosques and monasteries in Asia were already doing the same through wrestling, fencing, archery and a variety of martial arts. (See anchor).

Modern sports owe their new status partly to the needs of the post World War II society and partly to the emergence of ‘market forces.’ The new, democratic society favoured meritocracy over caste, community or the colour of the skin. Black sportsmen emerged as cultural icons in the US and parts of Europe. Sports became part of the popular debate about equality and inequality and some old prejudices started to fade.

Today, if the church stands for moral values, sports do the same with more ease and credibility. Religions uphold human equality but remain prisoners of power structures. Sports, on the other hand, redefine social mobility in a democratic sense.

If religion is the opiate of the masses, modern sport is its double dose. We find a glimpse of it in the madness surrounding World Cup soccer but, still, there is something that sets it apart from mob activity. The craze for soccer does not violate basic values of fair-play and sportsmanship. Great merit is attached to being a decent loser. Sociologist Catherine Albanese believes that sports have given the Americans “a code of conduct for everyday living.” Does that sound like religion by a different name?