Religion and sports: games people play
The complex relationship that the two have had over the centuries continues to this day
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“When Europeans entered North America,” writes Arthur Remillard of the Saint Francis University, “there were approximately 500 independent Indian cultures, each with its own unique spiritual world view.” By Indians, Remillard here means the native Americans. The games that the natives played “also carried an air of sacredness”. But the Europeans saw the games or “bodies in motion” as “an affront to Christianity, and a barrier to conversion”. These bodies in motion were taken as evidence of “superstition”—an indication that Western Christianity’s “civilizing” role had yet to begin.
The complex relationship that sport and religion have had over the centuries continues to this day. Last week, the International Basketball Federation or Fiba, the world governing body for basketball, ratified a new rule allowing players to wear headgear. The decision has been welcomed by many Islamic and Sikh groups as the new rule will allow players to wear hijab and turbans during the game. The demand to change the rules in various sports to accommodate different cultures has been growing for some years now. An impetus to such demands was provided by Ibtihaj Muhammad, the US fencer who became the first American athlete in Olympic history to wear a hijab in the Rio games of 2016.
The media also splashed images of female beach volleyball players from Egypt—some of them in hijab and all of them in full sleeves and long pants. This was in sharp contrast to their opponents, who were attired in the bikini-style apparel one would normally associate with beach volleyball. Following these developments, Nike, one of the top global sportswear brands, has announced that it will be coming out with a “Pro Hijab” for Muslim athletes.
Sports should indeed embrace more diversity. If an innocuous change in a rule or two will enable competitors from culturally different parts of the world to exhibit their skills, then those changes should be made. But changing rules cannot solve all the problems. Take the case of Heena Sidhu, the Indian shooter, for instance. She decided to pull out of the Asian Airgun Shooting Championship in Iran last year because of the compulsory hijab rule for women participants. The matter, as it can be seen, boils down to choice. And if some choice has to be taken away, which of the two—sport or religion—will be the final arbiter?
Sports is the ultimate celebration of merit over identity. The story of Jesse Owens is the best example: The African-American athlete single-handedly dismantled Nazi propaganda of Aryan superiority in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When two players or teams battle it out against each other, the rules create the level playing field required for a black individual to contest against a white, or the underprivileged to challenge the wealthy. In other words, sport, unlike politics, is a great equalizer. Sometimes in the quest for enforcing this equality, the sport can end up stifling diversity. Therefore, periodic review of rules is a good practice.
But religion can be far more stifling—and the process of any change there can be far more cumbersome and protracted. While interpreting religious texts is a tricky business, more often than not the ambiguities of the text are exploited to cover for patriarchy and parochial politics. What else would explain the Taliban giving a go-ahead to men’s cricket in Afghanistan but not to women’s? Even the green-lighting of men’s cricket had more to do with the sheer popularity of the sport in Afghanistan than the fact that the gentleman’s game, unlike football, which the Taliban disapproves of, doesn’t let the knees show because of full-length trousers, as the Taliban would argue.
The Taliban wanted to use cricket to boost their domestic popularity and increase the acceptability of their regime worldwide. The Taliban government which was recognized internationally by just three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—thought an affiliate membership for the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now Afghanistan Cricket Board) in the International Cricket Council would only serve to shore up its legitimacy.
Sport and religion, however, have not always been on a collision course. Christianity’s initial problems with sports, as shown in Remillard’s account, dissolved with time as sports became more popular and the idea of “Muscular Christianity” gained ground. While a patriarchal concept, Muscular Christianity’s emphasis on physical activity and good health would slowly win over the evangelicals. And although the domain of sports was not immune to anti-Semitism and unfortunately isn’t even today, Jewish minorities often found sports to be a good way of integrating with the mainstream. In Hinduism too, sports like wrestling have served as vehicles for social and caste mobility. Outside religion, sports would provide a platform of protest against racism—the champion boxer Muhammad Ali being the most recognized exponent of this crusade.
The impact of sports on human history has overwhelmingly been for the better. The sport-governing bodies should, however, realize that a quest for equality on the field of play should not end up imposing uniformity to the extent of throttling diversity. Hijabs, turbans and kippahs are non-threatening additions and can be embraced. To be fair, sport has shown the ability to respond to democratic demands. The performance of religion on this count has been slightly less encouraging, to put it mildly.
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