?Sport and Spirituality? in popular culture

by Ian Lawrence, The Sport Journal: Vol 8. No. 2, Spring 2005

Sports and spirituality may be an oxymoron. What could be less spiritual than ‘big business’ sports?

York, UK -- Sports are clearly more important than ever to both the individual and society in economic, cultural and financial terms. Take for example, the growth of the Olympic Movement. Increases in broadcast revenue over the past two decades have provided the Olympic Movement and sport with an unprecedented financial base.

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From 1984 until 2008, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has concluded broadcast agreements worth more than US$ 10 billion (IOC, July, 2004). In the United States alone, General Electric and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) paid the IOC $3.5 billion for the broadcasting rights for all winter and summer Olympics between 2000 and 2008 (Phillips, 1999). The appeal of sport as a televisual spectacle is not in dispute (Lash and Urry, 1994).

The mass appeal of sport is something that is clearly not lost upon the commercial organisations spending $2.4 million for a 30 second advertising slot on what is traditionally the highest rated programme of the year, the 2005 superbowl (Nader, 2005). Displays of what in traditional religious vernacular could be termed liturgy and ritual and mass idolatry are part of the fabric of the game and the fourteen day build-up.

The Collapse of Orthodox Religion

The dramatic growth in the popularity of sports is in sharp contrast to the near collapse of formal or orthodox religions in many countries (Robertson, 2004). Inglehart and Baker (2000) observe that “not only has weekly church attendance plunged, but Latin American countries are now sending missionaries to ‘save the souls’ of their former colonizers” (p.20)

Further testimony to the decline of ‘formal’ religion is provided by the UK experience. The results of the Social Trends Survey (2002) demonstrated that approximately 24% of the UK population attended a sports event as a spectator, while half of all adults aged 18 who belonged to a religion have never attended a religious service.

Religion, particularly Christianity is in numerical decline throughout the Western world. William Docherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota, notes that children’s participation in religious activities has decreased by 40% from 1981 to 1997 (cited in Hofferth, 2001).

‘Spirituality’ through Sport?

Whilst dissatisfaction and alienation from traditional religious practices is increasing, there is a continuing, if not growing interest in the concept of “spirituality” (Lipsyte, 1973; Novak, 1993). The term “spirituality” is evidently an emotive and contentious one. “Some people, especially baby-boomers, reject the idea of religion, but believe they are ‘spiritual’” (Roberts, 2004, p.9). This perception may require networks to allow the individual to develop their own concept of spirituality. In sports spirituality is cultivated through allegiance or commitment to a team, either as a fan or as a spectator. Themes within sport may also typically include freedom and escape from normal life, discovery of meaning in life, commitment to a set of ethics and possibly a rediscovery of play in its purest sense.

People statistically may not want church (if evidence of declining attendance is accepted), but they do appear to question a purely materialistic view of life. They want to believe in something more, even if they do not know-or want to know - what that something is (Hamilton, 1995). The growth in the popularity of sports may be in part explained by society’s emphasis on “individualism” in the 21 st Century (Blake and John, 2003). Arguably, the more individualistic the society, the more intensely people may need some means of regaining a sense of group identity.

The research of psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968) may help to partially explain the way in which spectator sports act as a means of fulfilling individuals’ spiritual needs to belong. Maslow placed the “sense of belonging” halfway up his hierarchy of needs, with self-actualisation at the top. The need to belong is commonly regarded as a crucial part of an individual’s support of a sports team. However, only the athletes themselves reach the top and experience self-actualisation, spectators experience it vicariously. Theoretically, when people fail at discovering meaning in their lives they may use sports to fill this vacuum. Through sport individuals potentially find meaning in life.

Sport and Spirituality – harmful to the spirit?

Sport is clearly one of the most successful ways of taking up time in an activity which, from a Marxist perspective, may have no “utilitarian value” (Jakubowski, 1990, p.86). For many it may be a total irrelevance. Take the joke concerning golf ruining a beautiful walk in the countryside. Carroll (1998) argues that this view neglects the notion of “anima mundi” or soul. Sport for the ancient Greeks and Romans represented an avenue to find the connection to soul. The battle, whether it is on the golf course or in the boxing ring offers this opportunity to re-connect to the soul.

The enthusiasm to participate in sport, either vicariously as a spectator or directly as a participant may be intrinsic. Testimony to this manifests itself in a child’s playful actions (Trotsky, 1994). The desire and enthusiasm to engage in distraction and play may be intrinsic to the human psyche, but Trotsky argues that in order that “spiritual requirements may flourish it is necessary that physical requirements be fully satisfied”. (Trotsky,1994, p.28). As the Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner has put it; “To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic … to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine” (cited in Prebish,1993, p.211).

The above is potentially reinforced through sport with its inherent ideals of “fair play” and “codes of conduct” enshrined in the rules and regulations. This is disputed, however by George Orwell in his essay, “The Sporting Spirit” written in 1945 where he comments upon the nature of modern sport, concluding that it has nothing to do with fair play. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words war minus the shooting” (Orwell,1945, pp.62-3).

Does the pursuit of sport harm the spirit? The prevalence of cheating and drug abuse does seem to challenge this aspiration of a connection to a “higher calling”. Does spirit become severed in elite sport? This question raises the issue of “sportsmanship” or the practice of ethical behaviour in modern sports. Sportsmanship is characterised by notions of civility and is “a matter of being good (character) and doing right (action) in sports” (Grough, 1997, p.21). Fair play and sportsmanship are challenged by what many regard as increased emphasis on a philosophy of “win at all costs” (Pilz, 1995). The impact of the coach is crucial in mediating the importance of sportsmanship and with it the notion of a games inherent spirituality. How individuals reconcile “the shifting definitions of sportsmanship with the objective of winning” (Buford May, 2001, p.387) is a complex task.


The intrinsic appeal of sport for many people is the uncertainty of outcome. Historically, however, this has never prevented mankind from attempting to tip the balance of uncertainty through various forms of cheating; indeed, the emphasis upon victory in sport defies and corrupts the ethics of fair play. If sport does indeed offer a vehicle with which to fill the spiritual void left by the demise of traditional forms of religion, it may do well to adopt the Buddhist philosophy which states that “Life is a journey”. When sports and spirituality are passengers, is the destination cynicism? Every journey requires an ending.