I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Athletics or Sport?

I am sorry to harp on my mountain bike obsession once again. However, while I was trying to learn how to "true" my back wheel, I happened across this week's Christian Century magazine which (on page 7) quotes Bruce Benson, the Chaplain of St.Olaf's college as saying, "Sport is whether you win or lose. Athletics is how you play the game...Sport is about glamour. Athletics is about beauty...Sport creates stars, crowds, mobs, and gangs. Athletics creates teammates and community. Biblical religion is uneasy about the first. It loves the second."

I found this interesting as my own experience of "sport" and "athletics" seemed to confirm what Benson was saying. I have never been a top-flight athlete and, at my high school at least, this was seen as a rather serious flaw in my character. I know from my friends that many of them had similar experiences in their formative years. From what I have seen, many of our educational institutions, for the most part (reflecting society at large), seem to expect or affirm only perfection in sports. For me, at least, this meant that I didn't get comfortable as a "permanent beginner" in athletics until I was out of college. For some, imperfection in the realms of exercise and athletics continues to feel like a mark of shame. Of course, if you are not active, you don't get fit.

I cannot help but wonder if both this focus on winning and the continued institutionalization of childhood athletics contributes in some way to the startling rise in obesity among the general population of our country. This month's National Geographic contains the startling statistic that over 30% of Americans are obese (p.52). This is double the percent from 1974! I remember a friend of mine who was told she had to lose weight and then was told to find an exercise regime she liked. Well, she told them what she felt, which was that there wasn't any form of sports or exercise she liked. She was never "successful," after all.

To return to mountain biking for a moment, isn't it our duty as people of faith to reverse this trend in athletics? Shouldn't we all go out and start playing pick-up games, going on hiking trips and, yes, crashing through the bushes on our bicycles? Shouldn't we make it a point to forget the score? I say yes, we must! I mean, I love professional sports. I never miss a Patriot's game on TV and always wear my Red Sox hat in the summer (even in New York). However, watching something like football being performed at the highest level does not make me any healthier. Nor does it give me the spiritual benefits that can only come from going out and getting sweaty and dirty myself. An appreciation of professional sports shouldn't force us to cease our own athletic adventures any more than a quality ballet performance should keep us from dancing.

I, for one, will heed Mr. Benson's call and continue to ride my bike, though I am sadly uncoordinated and a year older than Lance Armstrong. I urge everyone to help reverse a dangerous trend and seize control of athletics on behalf of goofy amateurs all over the world!