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The Christian Athlete: Me, an Idolater?

June 16, 2022 4 min read
By Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas Professor of Human Movement Science, University of Costa Rica
World Cup trophy on a field
Photo by Rhett Lewis: see photo attribution below.

This article is the second in a series of nine on The Christian Athlete, authored by Dr. Luis Fernando Aragón-Vargas, professor of human movement science in the School of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Costa Rica.

Yes, it is possible for you to be an idolater, worshipping money or cars or the celebrity stars who perform on stage, and not really so different from people in ancient times who worshipped the stars of the heavens or fearsome figures of animals. You may even worship your own body, a way of worshipping the creature rather than the creator (Romans 1:25) that is especially tempting to athletes. The people who fall into this temptation are not necessarily spending endless hours in front of a mirror admiring their athletic form. The equation is simple: if you care more for your physical prowess and your athletic success than you care for God, you are an idolater. The Bible tells us, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

It is true that we are precious in the eyes of God as his beloved children. At the same time, do we realize that we are still servants of God? Even after performing wonderfully, we should recognize that we have only done what was expected of us. Jesus once said to his disciples:

Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:7-10).
Our duty as Christian athletes is to train and compete with excellence, keeping in mind that the glory and praise should always be God’s, not the winner’s. That is no easy task, because sports fans idolize their champions. The whole structure of modern sports is built around a secular perspective. The Olympic Games are a celebration of men’s and women’s physical accomplishments. Professional sports reward the best athletes with nice contracts and juicy sponsorships. Meanwhile, I cannot help but think that true Christian games should be less interested in awarding medals to the winners, and should end with acknowledgement of God as the giver of all gifts. Here is a radical idea: What about turning down a medal or a trophy that you have won?

Besides, who needs another idol? You don’t. And neither do hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people around you.

Pope John Paul II was invited to speak at the inauguration of the renewed Olympic Stadium in Rome on May 13, 1990. On that occasion he said: “It is not only the champion in the stadium, but the man as a whole person who must become a model for millions of young people, young people who are in need of leaders and not idols.” He made a similar statement to the Italian Tennis Federation at the International Championships of Italy in 1986: “You, athletes, are often in the eyes of the public. For that reason, you have a responsibility, above all, before the young and the children who look up to you as their role models.” And again, in 1987, addressing the participants of the World Athletics Championships, he said “You are watched by many people who expect you to be extraordinary figures, not only during athletic competitions, but also when you are far from the sports fields. We ask of you to be examples of human virtue, beyond your performance of strength and endurance.”1

Nobody needs another idol: young people need leaders, role models, examples of human virtue. They need the true God.

May we all, athletes and non-athletes alike, reflect the life of the One who lives in us. To paraphrase St. Patrick:

May Christ be in the eyes of all who watch me train and compete,
may Christ be in the ears of all hear me speak,
may Christ be in the heart of everyone
who thinks of my athletic career and my personal life.

1 Cipriani, R. (2021). Sport e Cristianesimo: storia e sociología. [Sport and Christianity: Story and sociology]. 2021.

Photo Attribution: Article image taken by Rhett Lewis, originally posted on History of Soccer.

To view the complete series with full citations as hosted by the University of Costa Rica, click here.


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