Soul Brothers - Is Triathlon a Religion?

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 1

by Scott Tinley
  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

 
          Endurance sports athletes don't seem to be obsessed with their obsession. If anything, athletes and marketers have embraced the idea that triathletes, ultra marathoners, and any athlete driven to ungodly levels is not obsessed but simply uh...focused. Nevermind the injuries and failed relationships, we tell ourselves, it's a healthy addiction, as if the label weren't already an oxymoron. If it weren't endurance sport, the self-rhetoric continues, it would be something less socially acceptable.

          Triathlon is a religion, many would suggest. Or is it?

          The comparisons between sport and religion are under-studied. On the surface both offer places of communal gathering, heroic figures, rituals, and are steeped in a quest for betterment. Sport and religion both celebrate group values and offer excitement and heightened emotions. Sport and religion are grounded in disciplined practice, a devotion to a cause, and a belief in the unseen. And both require faith.

          The intersections and overlaps between the two are not hard to identify. Sport has used religion since before the Ancient Olympic Games were dedicated to pleasing Greek gods. Athletes use prayer as motivation and thank the god of their choice for a strong performance. Coaches use religion to reaffirm expectations, rules, and social control.

          Organized religion uses sport in ways that are both clear and opaque. Judeo Christian belief has empowered the idea that the body is a tool to bear witness, establish mastery, and when used in competition, a way of demonstrating moral worth.

          The primary difference however, is that sport is profane and of this earthly world while most religions focus on the sacred and a life beyond death.

          Some have suggested that sport is a kind of "natural religion" (Novak, 1970), a deep cultural practice that provides us with moral guidance in how to live our lives. And others have integrated the two at such levels of existence that they have become inseparable. Sport has become their form of worship to a god in whom they believe and follow.

          I don't know if triathlon is more or less religion than baseball or lacrosse or surfing. I don't know if our cliché of obsession carries over into our desire or ability to believe in a higher power. I do remember feeling much more spiritual during a long solo ocean swim. And praying after a friend was killed by a shark.

          Where commercial sport continues to grow and influence our social worlds, we are a society that is increasingly secular. Where most of our parents and grandparents remain connected to the church of their youth, fewer of us now claim any long-standing affiliation with organized religion. This asks the question, are we replacing religion with sport? And is that even possible if we maintain that the two are innately different?

          Some of the best athletes are deeply spiritual but do not belong to an organized religion. And some of the best athletes may also choose to avoid organized sport, instead finding meaning in a physical culture far from the cheering crowds. At a minimum, we must respect the choices of those that do not believe as we do lest we forget that more people have died in the name of Christ than Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan.

* * *

Sometimes I wonder if one set of beliefs is favored over another when looking for a performance edge. Eastern religions and philosophies such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shinto focus on discipline and self control. But they also favor a transcendence beyond the necessary self-absorption of endurance sports elite. Protestantism has its historical connections to a work ethic and Rastafari seems flexible enough to allow for a lot of daylight training. Catholicism has its own culture of youth sport programs and Judaism has a rich history of great ball players. It's a zero sum argument, of course, and only tolerance will move us past any harmful stereotyping.

          I like to think that endurance sport offers the athlete a wide of field of options, ways and means of thinking about spiritual meaning simply because we have the time. Traditional team sports, rife with strategy and skill and tactics, don't afford the athlete those long solitary hours of allowing the mind to wander as we follow the white lines and black tiles into another world of thought.

          And perhaps there is an acceptable justification for our compulsions after all. That is, we are using the miles and aisles to better our souls. It sounds good on paper but as with anything, you get out of it what you put into it.



Scott Tinley won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

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date: June 1, 2011

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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