A Theological Reflection on Sport

For years, I stood on the tatami almost daily to become the best and strongest judoka possible. It was a routine, after a long day of classes or lectures, to practice intensively and long, even when I was tired, still sore all over, or simply did not feel like it. My legs might be bruised, my knuckles battered and my muscles stiffened, but I did not think about quitting. In fact, I did not think much about why and what I was doing this for anyway. I felt joy when a new technique succeeded, or when I managed to become Dutch junior champion. And yet, every time when I was thrown again and lost a match… Soon I would start telling myself that I only matter if I perform well. That I only deserved to win through suffering. After all, sport is about pushing limits and exceeding them. High-performance sport is about striving for the highest, no matter what, no questions asked. Or is it?

After all these years, I cannot avoid asking the questions: Why did I give it my all; what was of ultimate concern? What is the ideal of high-performance sport, and is it healthy and humane? Recent reports of abuses in sport show the urgency of these questions. Actually, it is not surprising that in such a performance-oriented culture, transgressive behaviour seems to be common. In an attempt to reflect on this, I ended up with theology. Indeed, theology is concerned with the question of the ultimate. And yet, religion and theology are themselves not free from excessiveness, from idolizing and absolutizing things that are not holy. So, how can theology use its critique of idolization not only within its own field, but also on transgressive behaviour in sport?

Transgressive Behaviour in Sport

There is no doubt that sport has many positive aspects. Sport not only provides pleasure and relaxation, but it also benefits health and well-being. It promotes the development of all kinds of character traits such as perseverance, dedication, discipline, dealing with loss, and cooperation. Sport connects people, fosters social contact, and thus has an important societal value as well.

            That sport, and especially high-performance sport, has its downsides too has been brought to attention recently. It is obvious that in order to reach the top, one has to train hard, and in doing so, one pushes physical and mental limits. However, this does not justify an unsafe and inhumane sport environment. Today, the subject of excessive abuses in modern sport is high on the agenda of sport federations and national governments as a result of drug abuses, corruption, match-fixing, different kinds of physical, verbal, and sexual violence, unhealthy power relations, discrimination, and intimidation. The pressure to perform is high, and the dependence on the trainer or coach is strong, often resulting in a culture of silence. The sexual abuse scandal in American Gymnastics is, for example, a well-known case in which, among others, the former national team doctor, Larry Nassar, was sentenced for sexual assaulting several hundred gymnasts in a period of more than twenty years.[1] Stories about physical and mental effects of high-performance sport are also increasingly coming to the fore. In the Netherlands, the daily newspaper Trouw recently highlighted the physical effects in a series of interviews with ex-high-performance-athletes: from chronic physical injuries due to overtraining, to brain damage, athlete dementia, and anorexia.[2] Other interests, such as money and club performance, often appeared to outweigh the athlete’s health. The adage was ‘play or get off the team’.

The Sacred and Religion

In an attempt to turn the tide, the Dutch philosopher of sport Sandra Meeuwsen reflected on this transgressive behaviour in modern sport in her 2020 published PhD thesis. Meeuwsen advocates a new understanding of sport in which the destructive and abusive aspect is not excluded but rather recognised. Inspired by Johan Huizinga’s famous book Homo Ludens (1938), the paradigm of sport as play was leading in the twentieth century. As a result, it was not accepted that sport is also a fight. In this way, this idea of sport as fight, and thus the potentially excessive side of sport, became invisible and started to manifest itself in all kinds of excesses.

            In contradiction to this modern understanding of sport, among the ancient Greeks, the excessive, emotional, and aggressive sides of humanity were recognised and expressed in sport. A collective ritual offered the possibility of katharsis: of purification, sacrifice, and transformation. Sport thus took place in a clearly sacred context. The sacred refers here to ‘the healing function, the levelling character’[3] and the ‘self-loss within a sacred awe of the higher’.[4] As a result, the will to win was important, but winning was never an end in itself because victory always served the gods or social cohesion.[5] According to Meeuwsen, modern sport has lost this sacred context precisely because of the dominance of the ‘sport as play’ notion, which does not allow for the possibility of controlled release and healing of humanity’s excessive side.

            Meeuwsen therefore pleads for a renewal of original sacredness, which she deliberately does not seek in the notion of ‘sport is the new religion’. All sorts of phenomena that Meeuwsen refers to as ‘pseudo-religious rituals’, such as ‘the divine worship of elite athletes, the athletic body, and tribal behaviour during events’,[6] may point to the replacement of religion with sport. Yet, precisely ‘by reducing sacredness to religion, the pre-religious sacred roots of sport disappear even further into the background’.[7] That is peculiar, because religion is all about the sacred. The problem, however, is that solidified religious forms no longer seem to do justice to the sacred. Is it possible to look at the relationship between religion and the sacred differently, so that religion can make a constructive contribution to dealing with the destructive side of sport?

The Ultimate

According to the German-American theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965), faith means being ultimately concerned, that is, to consider something to be of ultimate concern.[8] Every person, to Tillich, has something that is sacred to them, that concerns them unconditionally, because in it something makes itself known that is absolute and gives meaning to life. However, the unconditional comes only in the form of the conditional: In the form of symbols, language, and practices.[9] In this way, the sacred (the unconditional) comes in the form of religion (the conditional). Because the ultimate matters so much to us, it also contains a danger, namely that we can no longer distinguish the forms we give to it from the ultimate itself. Religion, and everything that can develop into a religion, can become excessive and no longer know its own limits. It then laps into idolization: The golden calf in the Old Testament, but also the divine worship of athletes are examples of this. That is not a reason to renounce religion completely, nor sport. It is rather a reason to reflect well on our relationship to the ultimate. After all, isn’t there also too much focus in sport on achievements, the glory, the money, either under the influence of outside forces or not? Consider the expected number of medals from sport federations and national governments in the run-up to major tournaments. As a result, sport becomes a means to an end – winning. But are those titles really what it is all about?

Winning as an End Versus Living By Grace

Inspired by Tillich, the U.S. American philosopher and theologian John D. Caputo contrasts means-to-an-end-thinking with the unconditional or ultimate. He quotes the poetry of the mystic Angelus Silesius (pseudonym for Johannes Scheffler (1624–1677)): ‘The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen.’[10] The rose is without a cause or reason and blossoms because it blossoms. By this, Caputo refers to living under the condition of the unconditional: living without why. This does not mean that the rose does not have a cause or reason, because it does: It blossoms because of a rich soil and enough sunlight and water. These are the conditions under which it can grow and flourish, just like athletes need the right conditions to excel. What Caputo refers to, however, is a deeper level, what he calls ‘nihilism of grace’: The idea that the rose is just there without us having to ask why or for what. It does not blossom to be seen or praised, but simply because it blossoms. Therein lies the ultimate of its existence.

            The point Caputo wants to make is that we too can be like that, without an external why, without a higher purpose than life itself. That is living by grace, by the idea that life is a gift that we did not ask for. A gift we do not earn. A gift that we, however, have to accept in gratitude to recognise its value. This includes our mortality too, which does not make life meaningless, but rather adds value to it. Face to face with death, life intensifies, Caputo writes.[11] Precisely the condition of our finitude gives us the possibility to strive for the ultimate. When we have limits, we can also push our limits. In this way, all efforts that contribute to the flourishing of the whole of humanity are equally worthwhile, because in each individual something of the sacred can become manifest that transcends the individual. Humanity can flourish, not in spite of, but because of its limits.

            What if we now consider sport from this perspective? Could we practice sport in such a way that we are living by grace, with no interest other than sport itself and, precisely because of that, with the possibility of human flourishing? Such a stance requires acceptance of the value of our limits and of everyone’s efforts. In doing so, we can do justice to the ultimate without shifting this ultimate to something other than sport, such as the winning, the prize, or the attention. In this way, wouldn’t a deeper level emerge: A level of respect for each other and for the sport, of wonder, of patience, and of acceptance – also of loss, because it might be as important as winning?


This living by grace is living in surrender. At the end of her book, Meeuwsen suggests that perhaps the concept of surrender could be a key to a new understanding of sport that integrates destructive powers. In sport, there is always ‘striving, wanting to control, disciplining, (over)winning, there is no resignation’.[12] In contrast, she describes surrender as ‘accepting; accepting loss; of not being able to; of physical and mental limits’.[13] To Meeuwsen, surrender provides a healing and sacred context, because it allows us to move beyond the notion that sport is only about winning.

            Indeed, there is no religion or faith without some kind of surrender. Faith is a surrender to something greater than oneself, to the ultimate that requires all our efforts and sacrifice. Judo is to me a surrender; judo is stepping into a movement in which I can also lose myself. It is the moving of the other and me around each other, bringing each other off balance, throwing and being thrown. Falling and getting up. And that movement touches my deepest being. It makes me dream, dare, and hope, but it can also break me, knock me down, and leave me in tears all alone. The umpteenth time you get thrown. The umpteenth time you fail and fall. My judo is mostly falling. My belief is unbelief. But in that unbelief, I am called upon again and again to stand up and participate. It is putting yourself at risk, because only when you risk losing yourself, you can overcome yourself.

            The greatest judo is usually not that which you see in final matches, where it is about winning or losing. Real judo is actually only there when it is no longer about the athletes and their own expectations, but about judo itself. We become participants in something bigger that transcends our individuality, a higher end that is deeply sacred and worthwhile. Then, a form of competition emerges that pushes us forward together. And only then can sport reach its full potential and humanity can flourish.


[1] See for example: Hadley Freeman, ‘How was Larry Nassar able to abuse so many gymnasts for so long?,’ in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jan/26/larry-nassar-abuse-gymnasts-scandal-culture.

[2] See here seven interviews and an article with some concluding remarks and reflections: Esther Scholten, ‘Fysieke prijs van topsport,’ in Trouw, https://www.trouw.nl/dossier/fysieke-prijs-van-topsport-storystream.

[3] Sandra Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede. Een filosofische archeologie van de moderne sport. Brussel 2020, 184.

[4] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 93.

[5] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 202.

[6] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 184.

[7] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 184.

[8] Paul Tillich, ‘Dynamics of Faith’, in Paul Tillich, Writings on Religion/Religiöse Schriften. Main Works/Hauptwerke 5, red. Robert P. Scharlemann, Berlin/New York 1988 [1957], 231–290, here 231.

[9] Tillich, ‘Dynamics of Faith’, 267, 276.

[10] John D. Caputo, Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim. Minneapolis 2015, 27.

[11] Caputo, Hoping Against Hope, 158.

[12] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 241.

[13] Meeuwsen, Kritiek van de sportieve rede, 241.

This article was published in Dutch before on the website liberaalchristendom.nl: https://liberaalchristendom.wordpress.com/het-ultieme-voorbij-de-grenzen-van-het-menselijke-een-theologische-kijk-op-sport/. The author was subsequently interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw: https://www.trouw.nl/religie-filosofie/theoloog-met-zwarte-band-schiet-te-hulp-bij-debat-over-misstanden-in-de-sport-waarom-willen-we-eigenlijk-winnen~bad89b3d/.

Photo Credits: Bryan Turner auf Unsplash

RaT-Blog Nr. 06/2023

  • Sabine Wolsink is judoka (2nd dan) and university assistant (predoc) at the Institute of Systematic Theology and Religious Studies of the Faculty of Protestant Theology and the Vienna Doctoral School of Theology and Research on Religion (VDTR) of the University of Vienna.