Saturday, February 20, 2010

Death, Injury, and Risk Taking in the Winter Games: Begging for a Christian Response

By Shirl James Hoffman, author of Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports

The video of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal collision with a support post on the lightening fast luge course at the Vancouver Winter Olympics has spread across cyberspace like wildfire. Thanks to modern technology we can play the incident over and over again, each time watching his body hurtle toward the unyielding post, each time hearing the sickening thud as life is snuffed from his body. Ultimately what Kumaritashvili feared would happen, did. He reportedly told his father before the race: “I will win or die.”

Watching it, many would say, slakes an unhealthy thirst for blood, infecting our spirits with the same morbid fascination that gripped first century Romans, witnesses to the gruesome contests featured at arenas spread across the empire. But is it possible that this video, in which the frightening and predictable result of traveling down a steep icy slope, supinely stretched two-inches above the ice at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, might have some redeeming qualities after all? Perhaps.

However the Kumaritashvili death video might flirt with the dark spots of our spirits, it also serves—in a most vivid way—to underscore how modern sports, shaped by a voracious commercial market, geared to popular tastes, and propelled by an all-consuming quest for excellence, relies on the elements of danger, risk, and threat of bodily injury as a way of securing a larger and larger fan base. The image of Kumaritashvili’s collision makes clear in ways critical essays cannot, the truth that when athletes push their bodies to unreasonable limits, whether in the luge, snowboarding, or freestyle skiing, disaster, sooner or later, will result.

Realistically, one has to doubt the power of such tragedies or their recapture on video to dull either the public appetite for sensational sport or the industry’s eagerness to satisfy it. Less than two months before Kumaritashvili’s death snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s head collided with the side of the halfpipe during a December training run for the Olympics as he attempted a twisting-double-back flip known as the “double cork.” The “incident” (I refuse to call them “accidents”) left him with the grim prospects of regaining his vision and memory and relearning how to walk. The near certainty that eventually Pearce or some of his cohorts would be injured hadn’t kept the IOC from elevating the height of the halfpipe from 18 feet to 22 feet in order to provide greater “air time,” greater excitement for spectators, and greater opportunities for spectacular injuries.

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky recently told AP writer Rachel Saslow: "The Winter Olympics has always had dangerous sports, but it's getting worse. A lot of it has to do with maybe you want the ratings, and danger is good for ratings. Perhaps not so good for the athletes. You do have to ask yourself what's going on."

The Christian community’s response to this trend of increasing sensationalism in sports, evident not only at the Winter Games but in other sports such as football, hockey, lacrosse, NASCAR, and increasingly in soccer, has been, well, virtually non-existent. Should the Christian community speak out against sports in which victory, fame, and fortune is directly tied to athletes’ willingness to risk life and limb in performing dangerous stunts? I think it should. Is there a Christian position which speaks to sports whose appeal lies in part on the athlete’s bet against odds that he or she will come out of the event whole? Yes there is. Are Christians entitled to trifle with the body as an expendable instrument? Hardly. When Paul urged the Romans to “present their bodies as living sacrifices” and told the Corinthians to “glorify God in your bodies,” I doubt that he was envisioning lugers tempting death, or snowboarders risking their necks performing “super-squirrels” or “back-to-back-double corks,” even if they tack on a “thank you Jesus” at the conclusion of their runs. More likely he was reminding us that our bodies and souls, inseparable and sacred, deserve our utmost respect and honor.

I say this, fully conscious that evangelicals have rushed to capture the popularity of these sports as a way of evangelizing the masses. Winter Olympic Games like the Summer Games have become a target of evangelistic entrepreneurship stretching across churches and para-church groups bent on turning the attention of spectators to the gospel message. Copy from one evangelistic group’s website trumpets the familiar ends-justifies-the-means chorus: “The world will be watching—every perfected performance, every attempted spin, every crash and tumble down the slopes, every shining face on the victory stand.” What such hype doesn’t point out, of course, is that in those “crashes and tumbles down the slopes” scores of joints will be sprained and strained, bones will be broken, tissues defaced, brains traumatized, and bodies sacrificed for the cause. The logic of using sports that so blatantly dishonor the body to advance a gospel message that would seem to warn against it is left for us to figure out.

About the author:

Shirl J. Hoffman, Ed.D is Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he served as head of the department for 10 years. Hoffman has been a frequent contributor to the national dialogue on issues in kinesiology and higher education. He is a former editor of Quest and former associate editor of the Chronicle for Physical Education in Higher Education. He was named Distinguished Scholar by National Association for Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education (NAKPEHE). He gave the Alderson Lecture at The University of Texas and the Dudley Sargent Lecture to NAKPEHE. Currently he is a fellow emeritus of the American Academy for Kinesiology and Physical Education, member of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport and Executive Director of the American Kinesiology Association, an association of over 100 college and university departments of kinesiology across the U.S. and Canada.

Hoffman is editor of the first book Sport and Religion (Human Kinetics, 1992) and has been featured in a number of nationally aired televised documentaries on sport and religion on CBS (“Sport and Ethics”), ESPN (“Time to Pray, Time to Play”), Channel 4 in Britain (“Praying to Win”) and on nationally aired broadcasts on NPR (“A Whole New Ballgame”), BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (“Inside Track”) and various local and regional talk shows.

Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports

by Shirl J. Hoffman

Baylor University Press Feb 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-932792-10-2/paperback original/341 pages/$24.95

1 comment:

Mocha with Linda said...

This was an interesting article.

I'll post a review of his book soon.