“All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win. All the fighters at the games go into strict training; they do this just to win a wreath that will wither away, but we do it for a wreath that will never wither. That is how I run, intent on winning; that is how I fight, not beating the air. I treat my body hard and make it obey me, for, having been an announcer myself, I should not want to be disqualified.” – 1 Cor 9:24-27
I have loved sports since I was a young boy. I guess you could say that I was the typical, overactive, unable-to-sit-still boy growing up. I was always itching to play – to kick a ball about, to toss it up and down, to bounce it here and there… One of the highlights of my childhood was to go to Bishan Park with my dad to have a little kickabout. And even though I was so much younger and so much less skilful, I was always up for trying to score more goals than my dad. I guess that was where my competitive spirit grew! Over the years, circumstances are such that I no longer have as much time to do sports as I used to – though I still try to make time for the occasional futsal game, but I still try to find time to follow my favourite teams and sometimes even watch them on the television. I have also thought long and hard about why I enjoy sports so much…and here are some reasons why:
For me, sports and sporting activity is the quintessential human activity – it engages all aspects of our humanity, our bodies, our minds and our souls. Let me explain by using the example of my favourite sport – football. The body (physical) aspect is fairly obvious, so I am not going to dwell on that too much. But for those who describe football as a sport where twenty-two men (or women) run around aimlessly chasing a ball, they could not be more wrong. Football can be an incredibly cerebral game. A footballer’s mind needs to continuously process a whole host of information. You would need to be aware of where the opponent players are, where your teammates are, to anticipate where the ball is going to be, to find pockets of space so that you can free yourself from your marker, etc. At the same time, because the ball is round and there is a certain amount of randomness in the way a play develops, you would have to be continuously prepared to react and respond in the blink of an eye. On top of the mental aspect of the game, football is also about the soul. No amount of physical talent or mental prowess is enough if there is no will and desire to win. This is why every now and then, we witness a supposedly inferior team defeat a superior one. The all-encompassing nature of sports sheds light on the reality of the human person – that he is body, mind and soul – a fact that is forgotten all too often in modern society. St Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” To me, sports is when man comes fully alive.
Another aspect of sports that is enjoyable to me is that it pursues excellence – both subjective and objective. One sport that I enjoy watching and following is swimming. I believe most of us would remember the gold medal that Joseph Schooling won in the 2016 Olympics. That was the culmination of years of training and dedication, years of trying to better oneself, years of sacrifice and pain. Every swimmer is trying to better himself or herself, to set ever better personal best timings. Excellence, in this case, is to constantly push oneself to grow. This is the subjective aspect. On the other hand, what everyone was interested in on 12 August 2016 was not whether Joseph Schooling would set a personal best in the 100m butterfly finals (he did). We were all focused on one simple question – whether he would win the Olympic gold or not. And that’s the beauty of sports, right? At some point, it is no longer about racing against yourself, but whether or not you win the prize. That is the objective aspect. Thankfully, Schooling swam the swim of his life and won. Our spiritual life too is often a reflection of what athletes experience in sports. We are always trying to better ourselves, to grow closer to God. Man, the human subject, is always trying to move towards God, the objective good.
I love sports also because of the stories. Every so often, I am treated to wonderful stories of human triumph in the face of adversity and failure. Nowhere is this more evident than in baseball. Baseball is a sport of constant failure. The very best players succeed – getting on base – just under half the time (Ted Williams, the all-time leader in getting on base, posted a 0.4817 percentage throughout his career). Most of the time, they fail. Yet, that does not stop baseball players from trying. It also means that every time a player succeeds, there is a thrill and excitement in the crowd. In a way, this is also particular reminiscent of our human struggle with sin. No matter how hard we try, how much effort we put into it, we inevitable fall into sin. We fail. Yet, the beauty of all this is not that we fail, but that we never stop trying. That every time we fall, we get up again and we try again. Sport encapsulates this – the triumph of the human spirit – powerfully.
These are some of the reasons why sports is so enjoyable for me. It reminds me constantly of the different aspects of my relationship with God, of my walk with God. For those of you who love sports too, I hope that your love for it continues to grow!