The Virtues of Sport

November 21, 2019

The Virtues of Sport

Image: manzrussali /


James Pietsch

For at least 100 years, sport has held a prominent place within the Australian psyche. We take great pride in the fact that Australia has participated in every modern Olympics, and our nation has pioneered the establishment of government-funded institutions for the sole purpose of developing our sportspeople. Within the mainstream media, the successes and failures of different sporting teams are often regarded as important enough to be one of the leading stories in our news media: at the very least, a half hour nightly bulletin will dedicate 5 minutes to reporting on stories about different sporting competitions.

The value placed on sport by Australians was, at one time in history, something uniquely Australian; Australians were characterised across the world as outdoors people who enjoyed playing sport and produced sporting champions in excess of what would have been expected from a country so small and insignificant in the eyes of the rest of the world. Our sporting success reached its zenith at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where Australia finished fourth on the medal tally behind the three genuine world superpowers of the US, Russia and China.

Since then, however, other countries have followed Australia’s lead and have started to invest more in their sporting programs. Countries of significant wealth, such as England, Germany, Japan and France outperformed Australia at the 2016 Olympics, having recently invested more money in their elite sporting programs. Furthermore, the status of sportspeople across the world continues to grow, as do the financial rewards for those who are involved in sport at the highest level. In July 2019, the Australian basketballer Ben Simmons reportedly finalised a deal with the US basketball team, the Philadelphia 76ers, over five years for $240 million dollars.

Sport also represents a significant aspect of our economy. The federal government spends around $120 million each year supporting various sporting activities.[1] In 2015, the AFL signed a deal for television rights worth $2.506 billion dollars and the NRL signed a deal worth just under $200 million a year for free-to-air coverage, as well as another $75 million a year for digital coverage.[2] For the five-year period beginning in 2018, the NRL will receive $1.9 billion dollars in total for broadcast deals across a range of different media.[3]

Consider the number of people involved in weekend sporting activities. While there are about 13,000 churches in Australia,[4] there are 70,000 sports clubs, and 6.5 million Australians who participate in organised sport. On top of this, 7.6 million attend live sport each year, 92% of adult Australians follow at least one sport and, importantly, 2.3 million people volunteer time for sport each year—the largest volunteer category in the country.[5]

Virtues of health

The primary argument in favour of playing sport relates to its physical benefits and the encouragement it provides to pursue a healthy lifestyle. Recently, the government has sponsored a campaign to encourage young women to take part in sporting activities. The title Girls, make your move and the subtitle Being active makes you healthy summarise the intent of this campaign.[6] There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that people who remain engaged in sporting activities are likely to be healthier. Sport provides a rare context in our society where it makes sense to run around for approximately 90 minutes a couple of times a week. We know that such activity, combined with a healthy diet, leads to lower risk of suffering from a range of conditions, including depression and anxiety, increases longevity, and supports the functioning of the brain more generally. Putting aside any benefits for hand-eye coordination or skill development, the simple fact that being involved in a sport often provides an incentive for engaging in aerobic exercise three times a week provides a rationale for promoting many sporting activities. And who would want to argue that living a healthy life could ever be a bad thing?

We live in a society that places a very high premium on good health. The 2015 budget set out a program of allocating $20 billion towards the Medical Research Future Fund.[7] Besides wishing to extend our lives, there are many ways in which, as a society, we demonstrate the value we place on being healthy, and for many of us this means healthy-looking, youthful and beautiful. In fact, a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the key motivator for pursuing a healthy lifestyle was the desire to look good rather than to be physically healthy.[8]

But being healthy—let alone merely looking healthy—is not a moral virtue identified by the writers of the New Testament. Despite attempts by many Christian writers to use the Bible as a weight loss manual,[9] the modern-day obsession with diets, body building, gym memberships and eternal youth have nothing to do with God’s picture of the good life. What is more important than what we eat or drink, or whether we do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day, is the impact of our behaviour on relationships. When the Bible talks about being healthy it includes an emphasis on relational healthiness. The apostle John opens his third letter by saying:

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.  It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it.  I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 John v2-4, emphasis added)

Physical health is part of what John prays for his friend Gaius. But his physical health is not the only game, or even the main game. John’s greatest joy in these verses comes from the news he has of Gauis’ good spiritual health. But physical health is good and desireable, and it helps equip those living for the kingdom to serve others physically, to be mentally active, to be less likely to struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness which can make it more difficult to connect with other people. It is not a moral virtue in and of itself, but can help enable those living for the kingdom to focus on serving others.

Healthy living, pursued as an end in itself, becomes self-focused. Exercise becomes about putting yourself first, feeling good about yourself and enjoying what you do. It is the path to self-absorption and self-obsession, following on from the past 50 years in which Westerners have been challenged to seek self-fulfilment as a first priority. But this is not the aim of those living for the kingdom. In the promotion of sport, we need to ensure that achieving good health is not presented as the ultimate goal. Good health should rather be approached as a blessing to be used in the service of God.

Sport and Christian virtue

Given the benefits of a healthy life, why not simply encourage people to remain healthy by maintaining a regular habit of exercise rather than providing the context of a sporting contest? The competitive and social contexts sport offers can provide a motivation for some to  participate in physical activity, especially for those who are naturally physically gifted; but these same features can disincline others to participate.

From a Christian perspective, it is worth asking whether sport has anything to offer as a cultural practice that promotes the character traits of the kingdom: traits that show the kind of reverence for God and love for one another seen in Jesus. Does sport provide opportunities for the development of Christian character? Or is sport more likely to undermine such characteristics?

Sport and character

Sport as a cultural practice has a long history in Western culture, probably dating back long before various sporting contests were recorded. Since the beginning of the ancient Olympic Games 800 years before Jesus was born, however, sporting contests were seen not only as tests of physical strength but also of character. The Greeks had a well-developed theory of character virtues, most evident in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and certain virtues were associated with the activities of athletes, such as amilla (noble competition), timi (honour), elefteria (freedom), and irini (peace).[10] Administering the games were the hellanodikai (judges) who not only oversaw each athlete’s participation in the games and their adherence to the rules, but also assessed athletes in terms of their character prior to the games. Potential participants in the games were required to live at gymnasia for ten months of rigorous training before the games began. During their training the hellanodikai would select those athletes most worthy to participate in the games, assessing their power, stamina and resistance, but also their behaviour, character and morality.

The victors in the games would receive much acclaim and glory and many became famous for their exploits. As well as receiving the victor’s wreath at the games, however, they would also receive monetary rewards, free food and other gifts on their return to their home territory. Diogenes Laertius records efforts made by the governor Solon to limit the rewards that athletes received in comparison to the payments made to soldiers.

He curtailed the honours of athletes who took part in the games, fixing the allowance for an Olympic victor at 500 drachmae, for an Isthmian victor at 100 drachmae, and proportionately in all other cases. It was in bad taste, he urged, to increase the rewards of these victors, and to ignore the exclusive claims of those who had fallen in battle, whose sons ought, moreover, to be maintained and educated by the State.[11]

 The modern Olympic games draws on this heritage, identifying Olympic ideals and giving acclaim to the victors in each event. However, the efforts of Solon to limit the excessive honours paid to athletes do not appear to have any 21st century equivalent. While the Olympics were officially for amateur athletes up until 1984 (the official decision to allow professional athletes to participate being made by the IOC in 1986), there is now no limit on the financial benefits or endorsements that athletes can receive.

The importance of character has also shifted in modern day sport. Whereas the Greeks valued the person of honour, peace and freedom, today we hail sportspeople who show the virtue of physical superiority in strength, skill and technique, and even the virtue of winning in and of itself. We value sportsmanship when it is displayed after the event, but there exists a certain ambivalence about sportsmanship which results in someone losing. There are rare moments where one athlete supports another which become part of folklore, such as the race between John Landy and Ron Clarke in the lead up to the 1956 Olympics. Landy stopped to assist Clarke who had fallen over, but still went on to win the race, going down in history as a champion for both sporting ability and sportsmanship. Yet there are mixed feelings about cricketer Adam Gilchrist’s decision to walk when he believed he was out, rather than wait for the decision from the umpire.

The virtue of strength

The primary virtue associated with sporting contests is the strength and skill to prevail. The mighty victor is praised while the vanquished is pitied.

We see this same dynamic in Thucydides’ famous dialogue between the Athenians and Melians.The overwhelming strength of the Athenian army compared with the Melian forces gives them the certainty of victory, but the terms they offer the Melians will result in the subjection of the Melians to the Athenians. The Athenian ambassadors do not attempt to justify their actions on moral grounds, but on the grounds that their greater strength gives them the right to challenge weaker states:

Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can. This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist forever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.[12]

Sporting contests reflect such battles between earthly kingdoms in which these principles determine the outcome. Sport is often described metaphorically using the language of war—of battles in which the side with greater strength, strategies, leadership and training prevails over its weaker opponents. The strong prevail and the weak are defeated.

Nothing could be further from the values and principles of the kingdom of heaven. There is a profound challenge to kingdom values inherent in competitive sporting activities. Jesus continually teaches that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the weak, the orphans, the widows and the sick. As we exclusively celebrate sporting successes, we continue to elevate the strong, the most powerful and successful. Yet we see throughout Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, perhaps most clearly in the Beatitudes, that it is the peacemakers who are blessed, it is the person who seeks righteousness who will be vindicated, the person who mourns who will be comforted, rather than the strong.

While we might rightly admire and wish to acknowledge someone’s sporting prowess, we do well to also value other virtues demonstrated through sport: the humility demonstrated in celebrating a success without belittling the opposition; the generosity with which the other team was encouraged to achieve their best; the kindness demonstrated during the game and afterwards; the honesty with which the rules were adhered to and the referee’s decisions accepted. But to focus on superior strength or skills to the exclusion of these other characteristics is to communicate something antithetical to the teaching of Jesus.

The virtue of winning

Striving to win against opponents is built into the very nature of sporting competition, whether it be an Under 6s soccer game, or an Olympic 100 metre sprint. But striving to win can readily intensify into a ‘win at all costs’ attitude, especially in high stakes professional sport, but even at the local community sport club.

When sport is about winning at all costs, athletes will seek (or be pressured to take) every opportunity to increase their own advantage, or exploit their opponent’s disadvantage. This may be illicit, for instance by cheating, involvement in betting scams, or taking performance enhancing drugs; yet even when players play within the rules of the game, the spirit of the sport can be compromised.

Donald Bradman is regarded as the greatest cricket batsman of all time. He played much of his cricket with Keith Miller, whose attitude to the game couldn’t have contrasted more with Bradman’s. Bradman sought victory at any cost within the rules of the game. Miller, on the other hand, saw the game of cricket as a game—something to be enjoyed—and he would sometimes give up his wicket when he sensed that the opposition were unlikely to be competitive, to make the game more interesting. A veteran of World War II, Miller’s broader perspective on life allowed him to see cricket as a game rather than an opportunity to win.

Keith Miller was deeply affected by the Second World War. It changed him ... In the first post-war Ashes Test ... England were caught on a sticky (wicket) ... [and] Bill Edrich came in. He'd had a serious war and he survived and Miller thought, 'He's my old Services mate. The last thing he wants after five years' war is to be flattened by a cricket ball, so I eased up. Bradman came up to me and said, “Don't slow down, Keith. Bowl quicker.” That remark put me off Test cricket. Never felt the same way about it after that.'[13]

In Australia, and eventually across the world, it was the attitude of Bradman that prevailed. Of course, one could argue that Bradman’s hard-nosed approach to the game was forged in the infamous ‘Bodlyline’ series of 1928–1929, in which Larwood and the English cricket team deliberately bowled at the bodies of the Australian batsmen. Nonetheless, it was Bradman, through his leadership of the Australian team (including the 1948 Invincibles team) and then for many years as an administrator, who was to shape the future path of Australian cricket. The 2017 series between India and Australia exemplified this emphasis on competition above other values such as compassion and concern for the good of the opposition. This test series contained far more spite and accusation of cheating than previous test series, as both teams attempted to take whatever advantage they could to gain the upper hand. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Australian cricket team would step outside the rules in their efforts to win at all costs, as was evident in the 2018 tour of South Africa. The ball-tampering incident involving David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft resulted in the public disgrace of these three players and considerable soul-searching amongst the players and officials involved in Australian cricket.

In the 2019 World Cup, however, many of the players commented on the more positive atmosphere in which the game had been played. Players were far more likely to congratulate members of the opposing team as they achieved particular milestones and check on the welfare of players who were injured on the field. I am not sure whether this approach to the game is to everyone’s liking, but it is interesting to reflect on the fact that this change in approach was deemed newsworthy by the mainstream media.

Even in the professional realm there is, therefore, an alternative approach to sport which stands in opposition to the ‘win at all costs’ philosophy. Perhaps we can change the narrative we construct around sporting competitions so that the stories we tell focus on those moments of character which are evident on the sporting field, rather than simply who beat who, and by how much. This narrative will not necessarily be evident in the score, thus requiring some analysis of the contest to seek out those moments which demonstrate humility, compassion, grace and kindness. If this seems unrealistic, consider that such narratives focusing on players’ character and sportsmanship are in fact regularly told when that sportsmanship is particularly impressive or, on the contrary, disappointing.

In the 2019 women’s soccer World Cup, for example, an early game featured a one-sided affair between the US and Thailand, which the US won 13–0. Initially, media attention was focused on the fact that this was the highest score in a world cup soccer match in history. However, a second story began to emerge, which focused on the lack of humility demonstrated by the American team as they scored the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth goals. This story dominated reports on the game, particularly in the US, where former players raised concerns about the behaviour of the team, suggesting that some concern for the opposition and how they were feeling might have led to a tempering of their post-goal celebrations.[14]

A very different character-focused narrative is captured in a photo taken after the 1963 Rugby League grand final featuring Norm Provan and Arthur Summons congratulating each other. They are both so covered in mud that it is impossible to tell even which teams they were playing for. But this moment, captured by John O’Geady initially, is now part of the trophy awarded to the winner of the rugby league competition each year, representing the sportsmanship and camaraderie that can emerge from sporting competitions. I have no idea who won the grand final in 1963, nor even which teams were playing. But that moment remains embedded in my mind, representing a moment of joy and connection that existed between these two players. Here was an example of love and concern for another human being that has been celebrated ever since. Historically, these are the moments which last longer in the collective memory than the actual score or who won.

Living for the kingdom as an elite sportsperson

Professional sportspersons who are also seeking to live for the kingdom of God clearly face particular challenges. The world of professional sport is driven largely by ambition, self-interest and, in many cases, greed—whether that of the athlete, or of those around them whose jobs or income depend on the athlete’s success. Yet despite (or perhaps even more because of) this context, there are  opportunities for Christians to stand out as they reflect God’s character, as is evident from the narratives which develop around those moments of love and concern for others that often become more significant than the game itself.

Making one’s way to the top of a professional sport is a hard road that requires one to prioritise achieving results over almost every other aspect of one’s life. There may be pressure to be morally flexible; what might one be prepared to do to reach the pinnacle of a particular sport? Even though cheating is frowned upon by most athletes,[15] such principles can be held lightly when one is faced with choices which could determine sporting success. So much so, that in a 1995 study asking athletes whether they would take illegal drugs if they were guaranteed to win and not get caught, 98% said that they would take the drugs. Furthermore, in a follow up question asking whether they would take the drugs if it also meant that they would be dead within 5 years, over half were still prepared to take drugs to ensure a win.[16]

Professional sportspeople are under intense pressure to perform. The stakes for some are incredibly high, just as they were for the victors at the ancient Olympic Games. In the 2009 FINA swimming world championships in Rome, Milorad Čavić broke the world record in the semi-final of the 100 metres butterfly. Unfortunately for Čavić, Michael Phelps broke the world record again in the final. Over the course of 18 months the two wrestled for the world record in a number of different events (Phelps also beat Čavić controversially by one hundredth of a second at the Beijing Olympics in 2008). Today, virtually nobody outside the world of swimming knows the name Milorad Čavić while almost everybody knows the exploits of Michael Phelps.

This intense pressure creates an environment in which character is tested, so much so that one can understand when elite athletes are tempted by the promise of performance enhancing drugs. It also provides some rationale for the extreme lengths to which sportspeople are prepared to go to reach the highest levels in their sport. Without a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude, sportspeople are unlikely to succeed at the highest level in the modern era, where high profile sports attract billions of dollars in sponsorship. We live in an age very different to that which produced Eric Liddell. Liddell’s attitude to running was always to keep it in second place behind his desire to serve God wholeheartedly. It is unlikely, humanly speaking, that someone of Liddell’s character and temperament could succeed in the modern era where the professionalism of sport and the desire to win have become preeminent above all other concerns.

Sport and the kingdom of God

Engaging in sport, a cultural activity which inherently involves seeking to be first, presents significant challenges for people who wish to be characterised by seeking the good of others ahead of their own good. These challenges are exacerbated in the context of professional sport, where the pressure to win is so heightened and so much is at stake. Yet there are examples of sportspeople who resolve this contradiction such that their participation allows them to communicate something of the new heavens and the new earth to come. 

At the 2016 Olympic Games one of the stories which failed to make the headlines related to the actions of the Fijian rugby sevens team who, after winning the gold medal, burst into songs of praise to God. Here was a picture of heaven on the rugby field—not the game itself, but the many voices united in singing praises to God.[17] When Eric Liddell chose to swap races so that he could honour God by not running on Sunday, he communicated something of the honour that God’s people seek to give him as their Lord and King to the watching world. When he went on to give up his athletic career to be a missionary, he once again challenged the expectations of his age, which sought to give him the glory reserved for Olympic champions.

Why do we encourage young people to engage in competitive sports? Should we continue to do so? On one level the skills associated with a sport (such as cricket) require an opposition for these skills to develop. The reality is, however, that the skill of being able to hit a ball with a piece of wood is not related, in and of itself, to living as part of the kingdom of God. The process of learning these skills and playing the game, however, both have potential to give participants opportunities to show and grow in character, and to be people of grace who look for ways to serve others.

But sporting pursuits can be associated with character deformation as well as character formation. The quest for eternal youth and beauty through physical exercise represents one such pursuit which can lead people away from the kingdom rather than towards it. Pursuing sporting accolades at all costs, seeking to defeat the weaker opponent to further one’s own success—there are many challenges for people of the kingdom who wish to participate in sporting cultural practices, whether at community or professional levels.

As people of the kingdom, our participation in sport and physical fitness activities should involve presenting an alternative way of engaging in these activities—looking for opportunities in these contexts to serve rather than be served, to bring glory to others rather than ourselves. While this may not result in the same lucrative endorsements or victories on the sporting field, God’s people involved in sport have an opportunity to reflect a different vision of what life is all about—one that resonates with our wider world and presents an alternative story to tell about sport that may have nothing to do with the final score.


Dr James Pietsch is the Principal of Inaburra School, Sydney. After studying psychology and mathematics, James undertook a PhD in education at Sydney University, focusing on sociocultural theories of mathematics education. He is married to Margie and was the Dean of Residents at New College from 2003-2009. 










[9] A quick internet search reveals such titles as You’re a Big Fat Sinner, The Eden Diet, and Help Lord…The Devil wants me fat!


[11] R.D. Hicks, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. (Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925)).

[12] History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides 5.84-116 trans. Rex Warner.

[13] T. Lisle,  Wisden cricketers' almanack 2003 (John Wisden, 2003), p1671.

[14] Ironically, after the US team had beaten England and were just about to play in the final of the World Cup, their coach’s message to the team was that the job was not yet done and they were encouraged to ‘stay humble’. (


[16] This study, known as the Goldman Dilemma survey, was first administered in the early 1980s, and repeated every two years until 1995 with very consistent results. When the same study was repeated in 2013, however, the numbers of athletes who indicated they would take the illicit substance had dropped dramatically to around 2%, possibly reflecting increased public disapprobation and drug education in the intervening years (J. Connor, J. Woolf & J. Mazanov, ‘Would they dope? Revisiting the Goldman dilemma’. British Journal of Sports Medicine Vol. 47(11), 2013, pp697-700).

[17] Definitely worth watching at

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