There is something about human beings that makes us want to excel, and we measure our achievement of that goal by competing with others. Sport is a (usually) safe and (generally) wholesome way of campaigning for superiority and recognition. It is a way civilised human beings have devised to allow our universal impulse to compete to be exercised appropriately. We can thank the ancient Greeks for coming up with this way of competing with each other.
Sport has its origins, of course, in the physical and mental prowess required for waging war – which is the negative and destructive outlet for human competitive impulses. The genius of the Greeks was to provide games where these impulses could be channelled in a safe and positive way. Their games were a celebration of human achievement, and the prize was merely a victor’s crown of laurel or other leaves. Warfare among the ancient Greek cities was suspended during the sports competitions.
Alas, the same cannot be said of our times. Throughout this summer, against the backdrop of all the wonderful sport and sportsmanship we have been privileged to watch, the drumbeat of war has been constant. In the Ukraine, in Syria, in northern Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Gaza the nasty side of the human impulse for superiority has been devastatingly evident. Women, children, the elderly, the weak, and even innocent travellers have been particularly vulnerable to those jostling bloodily for recognition and power. The only achievement of these competitors is not excellence, but terror and destruction. After a continuous history of two thousand years, it is said that there are now no Christians left in northern Iraq, and it looks like Syrian Christians might soon follow them into oblivion.
Perhaps these dreadful results of the human impulse for competition will make the rest of us value even more the civilised competition of sport we have celebrated this summer, and may spur us on to pray and work for peace.