The world of sport is beginning to recognize another athletic pursuit, this one originating in Finland: competitive hobbyhorse riding. Seriously. And this isn’t something started as a mere diversion by a bunch of elementary schoolchildren.
Teenage girls and young women are reported to be taking to the woods for a spirited gallop on what look to be broomsticks topped with handmade horses’ heads that can cost as much as $200. Thus far, it appears that this is an endeavor enjoyed only by the feminine gender, though, if it catches on in the U.S., it will almost certainly someday face a challenge from Title 9.
As many as 10,000 Finns have by now participated in regular competitions that include dressage and show jumping, though these events haven’t yet been featured on ESPN. Presumably the care and feeding of these ersatz equines must surely be minimal, but the riders apparently subject themselves to a rigorous regimen. As yet there doesn’t seem to have been any mention of a Helsinki Derby, but give them time!
And, in other sporting news, the University of Utah became the first major sports college in the United States to grant scholarships for competitive video gamers, establishing a varsity team. The Utah “Utes,” named after the native American tribe and represented by a mascot suited up as a pugnacious raptor bird of some kind in red and white colors, are part of the Pac-12 conference of interscholastic sports. Other prestigious centers of learning in the Pac-12 will doubtless be making similar announcements in the near future.
Until now, the competition in this athletic conference has been centered on, well, athletics: football, baseball, basketball, and other contests, such as track and field. They have involved various physical competitions rooted back in the original Olympics of ancient Greece. The sometimes-epic sporting events that have resulted have created great spectacle, involving tens of thousands of spectators at a time—even millions if the media are taken into account.
So, the institution of a team for video gaming may seem at first odd. But maybe not. Video gaming, what has come to be called “e-sports,” is already a burgeoning competitive spectacle. In November 2015, Sports Illustrated published an article describing an event at Madison Square Garden, attended by 12,000 “screaming” fans watching two five-person e-teams, Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) and their hated rival, Team SoloMid (TSM), in a best-of-five championship.1
It seems that no matter what humankind finds to do to entertain itself, it inevitably leads to some form of competition. As the old Broadway song goes, “‘Anything you can do, I can do better!’”
Sports competition can be traced back to the earliest of ancient times. Some have suggested, probably facetiously, that one of the first examples of this is the all-night wrestling match between the patriarch Jacob and an angel, in which Jacob received what may be called the first sports injury (Gen. 32:24–30). But this event, as it is depicted in Scripture, had to be something more than merely pitting one athlete against another to see who could best the other. It involved something infinitely more consequential than pursuit of a championship ring.
Biblical commentator Matthew Henry describes this contest as—though literally and physically real for Jacob—the strenuous challenge of prayer in which the supplicant was struggling with God. It was not in any sense of the imagination for sport. It was not a game.
But then, as is well known, by New Testament times, sport had become a popular part of Greek and Roman culture. William Barclay points out that “at Corinth the Isthmian games, second only to the Olympic games, were held.”2 So it should come as no surprise that in one of his epistles to the Christian church members at Corinth, the apostle Paul referred to sport to illustrate some significant spiritual principles. “Do you not know,” he wrote, “that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24).3 In the pursuit of athletic excellence, there are key values that are apparently applicable also in some ways to spiritual development.
In some of his other Epistles, Paul explores further the metaphor of sports: “Let us lay aside every weight, and . . . run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Here he includes the preparation for an athletic meet—the game plan, if you will—in addition to the actual event itself, and the correspondences to the spiritual life are every bit as apt.
And then, as Paul appears to be nearing the end of his life, he looks back over his experiences and describes them in sports terms. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
In all of these allusions to sports, Paul seems to make little, if any, reference to competitors. His references to the games suggest the effort it takes to attain a standard or a goal to which all may prevail. “In this race, every entrant may win, for he is not competing with others, but with himself. He is not required to excel his competitors or to surpass a mark made by some previous contestant. Self is his only competitor, and the only requirement is that he exercise faithfulness and patience in his contest with self, and, by the grace of Christ, overcome every ‘weight’—every tendency to evil.”4
And, interestingly, none of these references seems to relate to spectators.
Much has been made in recent comment of the parallels between the way in which spectators of today’s sport think and act and their likenesses to the spiritual behavior of the religious. Some of this derives from the language itself. “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking,” writes sport psychologist Daniel Wann. “Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”5
The primary definition of religion in the online Cambridge Dictionary reads: “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship.”6 The latter part of this clearly recognizes even the possibility of secular variations of thought and behavior. In fact, parenthetically, it may even apply to veneration of science or atheism, which many adherents to those two belief systems vehemently deny.
And veneration is a form of worship, a concept that is central in Scripture, so much so that it appears implicitly in the very first of the Ten Commandments: “‘You shall have no other gods before Me’” (Ex. 20:3). In fact, it would be reasonable to say that the first commandment forms a foundation on which all the other commandments stand.
In the game of life, what may otherwise be termed “the great controversy between Christ and Satan,” each individual human being is both participant and spectator. This is a consideration of infinitely more consequence than hobbyhorse riding or video gaming. As a participant, one must decide on which side to suit up and play the game. As a spectator, it is a matter of which side to worship.
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