Sport and religion can be forces for good together

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Sport and religion can be forces for good together

In 2017 Netflix showed a series of sports documentaries examining the devotion and obsession of sports fans and how they viewed their sporting passion as a religion, coining the term “sportuality.”

The series studied fans of various sports in different parts of the US looking at the devotion their teams invoked. 

There are similar stories across the world and the use of the phrase “sport as a religion” can doubtless be found in many languages. Since watching the fascinating series, I have wondered how an episode conducted in Saudi Arabia would turn out and on which sport it would be focused? 

I have often thought about the relationship between religion and sport. Throughout the Kingdom religion has always been a huge motivating factor for athletes. 

When I  started collecting data for my PhD, religion was one of the crucial elements to study and I wanted to understand if it played a role in increasing participation in sport among the young. Sport fans and researchers continue to debate the similarities between religion and sport and how one affects the other. But there is little doubt that there are links between the two. 

Daniel Wann, a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, said in 2012: “The similarities between sports fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.” 

There are indeed sports which are, for some, inextricably linked to religion — just think of martial arts and its relationship with east Asian faiths and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. 

On the whole, both religion and sport tend to bring people together, and whatever your views on either that is something we can all celebrate. 

I have often thought about the relationship between religion and sport. Throughout the Kingdom religion has always been a huge motivating factor for athletes.

Dr. Razan Baker

Father Melchor José Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, recently said: “Faith and sports are two worlds that don’t communicate that often,” before adding that the two have a lot to learn from each other, “sport can help the Church a lot.”

He believes sport can be a powerful educational instrument in helping to develop and strengthen human values and teamwork. 

From the Islamic viewpoint, too, promoting sporting values strengthens one’s character to help you become a better and stronger Muslim.  The Netflix programs also reminded me of my observations and interviews in Saudi Arabia while studying for my PhD — both positive and negative. 

Firstly, in the past extremely religious and conservative parents used religion to prevent their daughters from participating in sport due to misconceptions — their reasoning was, females must not get into a male field or area. Secondly, on a more positive note, images of athletes praying before a match, or thanking God after a victory, or indeed women wearing their head scarves and competing, illustrated that sport and religion were far from incompatible. 

Times are changing in the Kingdom and, with it, attitudes toward sport. More children — of both genders — are being encouraged to get out and be active in the sporting arena. In time they will find their athletic passion and something to devote their time toward, and in so doing perhaps enhance their faith of both the sporting and religious kind.

  • Dr. Razan Baker is a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Bowling Federation, a specialist in corporate social responsibility in sports, and a sports columnist/journalist.
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