With the widespread consumption of popular media since the Second World War, elite sport has become increasingly popular and is today followed by a large number of people, seemingly fulfilling certain social needs in modern society beyond offering mere entertainment value. It can be argued that the fulfilment of these needs may have a religious connotation, effectively making sport a religion. When determining whether sport can be classified as a religion in its own right, we need to distinguish between elite athletes engaging in sports and spectators merely observing such activity. Let’s take a closer look at the thesis that sport is a religion and to what extent it applies to athletes and to spectators.
Sport as a secular religion
Religion is commonly understood as a system of human norms and values built on a belief in a superhuman order, whereby the everyday transcends into the sphere of holiness or the sacred. This sacred realm is inconceivable without divinity, hence the clear distinction between God and human beings, and a relationship between both. While religious attendance rates have dropped off in recent decades, interest in spectating sports events has soared. This has given rise to claims that sport can be defined as a secular or humanistic religion. Some scholars assume that humans have an innate religious instinct and that this very instinct has started to become suppressed in the post-Enlightenment era. In a secular society, people must therefore seek an alternative to this suppressed religious instinct, with sport being a suitable replacement.
Community and materialism
Many parallels can indeed be drawn between sport and religion. First, they both provide a sense of community and of belonging, be it to a church community or a sports club. Next, both sport and religion offer something in which people can place their hope for the future; in sports terms this might be the next game or season, and in religious terms the promise of a better future in this life or the afterlife. In addition, there are many people who have little or no interest in sport, which can be equated to atheism.
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
With the increasing secularism since the post-Enlightenment period, a spiritual void has emerged, and people are eager to find meaning and fill this void. Despite our materialistic contemporary society, material consumption alone does not bring about a fulfilled life. Humans are still searching for a purpose and meaning in their lives and continue to be concerned about the merit of everydayness and the meaningfulness of their own life. In 2018, sports company Nike stepped in to fill this spiritual void with their ad campaign featuring American football player Colin Kaepernick. The campaign message was “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” and Kaepernick was hailed as the new American Jesus, establishing a clear link between sport and religion.
Originally, sport arose out of a religious context, as evidenced for example by ancient Mayan and Native American games, where religious officials presided over the activities, as well as the Panhellenic Games, a forerunner of the modern Olympic Games. The early Greek Olympics were religious ceremonies, and some contemporary attitudes to sport still reflect these ancient characteristics. When the modern Olympic Games were established, the term ‘religion’ was used in connection with them, and with sports in general, in many instances as though some of the religious aspects of the antique Olympic Games were deliberately brought into modern Olympism. Today these religious aspects are still evident in elements such as oaths, the ceremonial aspects and the sacredness of the Olympic fire.
Athletes vs. spectators
We need to distinguish between athletes engaging in elite sports and spectators of the same. Pierre de Coubertin, one of the fathers of the modern Olympic Games, coined the term religio athletae and thought of Olympism as a religion, with ancient competitors believed to be chiselling their bodies through exercise like a sculptor would a statue, thus honouring the gods, or using bodily movement as a means to achieve a transcendental experience. It is thought that in ancient times sport was seen as a vehicle for communion with the divine and for regulating humanity’s relationship with God or the gods. Sport was akin to a sacred practice that enabled humans to reach for the heavens.
Athletes’ relationship with God
Today, many elite athletes are still dedicating their games to God, seemingly seeking spiritual ascension through sports. Athletes often describe experiencing a state of flow or euphoria, even transcendence and self-actualisation through their sport, which are all typically religious or spiritual experiences. Many athletes pray or, if they are Christian, cross themselves before a game or claim to be playing for God and dedicate their victories to God. Some can also be seen wearing religious symbols during games or celebrate goals by pointing a finger at the sky to praise God for their goal. Over time, games have become more uniform and regulated, for example in the form of fixed court sizes and strict regulations regarding dress and conduct. These norms and rituals offer a framework of safety and stability, thus serving the same function as religion in this aspect. Ellis states that sport thus clearly fulfils a sort of religious function for players and serves as a vehicle for divine energy or communication. Sport can therefore be interpreted as an expression of faith to those players who are already religious, or even as an extension of religion.
What about the crowd?
The question then arises whether a transcendental force is also transferred to the spectators observing the athletes in action. Just as religious experiences help believers to transcend their everyday lives, sports spectatorship is a transformative experience that enables fans to escape theirs. During sports competitions, everyday life is abandoned and spectators escape from everyday life, just as believers do when they attend church or attend other religious festivities, for example.
Rituals and idols
The psychological effects of watching elite sports and being closely involved in them are similar to that of religious experiences. Sports enthusiasts participate in rituals such as face painting, waving flags, or shouting their team’s war cry to identify as part of the group and with their team. Sports stadiums can be liked to cathedrals or other places of religious worship. Sports event calendars give fans structure throughout the year, much like the calendar of religious holidays and festivals does for believers. These symbols and rituals are hence again akin to religious symbolism and give sports spectators a religious experience.
Athletes are revered as idols, similar to gods being worshipped, which gives sports fans meaning in their lives. Sports idols are usually characterised by special charisma that draws fans in. Fans of sports personalities are typically inspired by people who have the power to excite the masses through their personality. Such charismatic idols don’t necessarily need be particularly decent or honest, rather they simply have to believe that what they say or do is right in a particular situation, even if it were to be considered wrong or immoral by ordinary standards. Elite athletes appeal to fans for as long as their performances clearly transcend the capabilities of ordinary human beings, thus making them seem super-human or god-like.
Some major sports events can even be likened to a secular pilgrimage, for example the annual Melbourne Cup in Australia. What is a secular event in a secular country seems to take on religious significance for participants. Even if spectators don’t travel there in person, most Australians still suspend their everyday activities to watch the race on that day, place bets and often drink alcohol. These are all ritual activities that can be likened to religious rituals.
Rather than comparing sport and religion in terms of their structure, their inherent purpose and intentions should be considered first and foremost. Although sport shares many characteristics with religion, it is lacking a faith-based belief system, and the primary goal of athletes and spectators involved in sports is not to establish a relationship with a divinity but rather to engage in the sports activity for its own sake or to support their team or an admired athlete. While religion strives to offer explanations about human existence and the meaning of life to its followers, sports does not pursue such a purpose.
Religion is closely associated with the divine realm, while sport is rooted in the physical, human realm. Further, although spectators idolise their favourite athletes, they are aware that despite their achievements and extraordinary skills they are ultimately fellow human beings and do not see them as supernatural or other-worldly beings. Another crucial characteristic of religion is therefore lacking in sport.
Sport can thus not be considered an autonomous religion. Rather, it can be interpreted as an extension of the already existing personal religion of athletes or as an expression of the same in their quest to get closer to their god. This aspect is, however, ancillary to the primary goal of succeeding in the sports activity, which sets sport apart from a religion proper.
For spectators who idolise elite athletes, on the other hand, sport can be interpreted as a quasi-religion. According to the German theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich, a quasi-religion is an entity with unintended similarities to religion, and sport clearly fits this description. Quasi-religious movements have very similar structures and functions than the recognised religions. In particular, there is a strong sense among the followers of secular movements such as sports that they should provide a source of significance and purpose in life. Carnochan also ascribed a quasi-religious status to sport, stating that “the strangeness of sports fandom lies in its quasi-religious nature”.
“The strangeness of sports fandom lies in its quasi-religious nature.”
In conclusion, we’ve seen that sport is in fact structurally and psychologically similar to religion in many aspects ranging from rituals, symbols and reverence of idols to transcendental experiences. But as it lacks the supernatural or sacred element crucial to religion, it is best described as an expression or extension of an existing religion for elite athletes, and a quasi-religion for spectators, rather than a religion in its own right.
Sources:W.B. Carnochan, 2010, ‘The Faith of the Fan’, Contemporary PsychoanalysisR Ellis, 2014, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport. Lutterworth Press, CambridgeI. Jirásek, 2015, ‘Religion, Spirituality, and Sport: From Religio Athletae Toward Spiritus Athletae’M. Meehan, 2019, ‘Vestal Nike and the Corporate Profit/Prophet’V. Møller, 2017, ‘Sport, Religion and Charisma’, Sport, Ethics and PhilosophyJ.E. Smith, 1996, ‘Humanism as a ‘quasi-religion’.’, Free Inquiry