Australian athletes

Sport and the Image of God

27 October 2021

4.8 MINS

We Aussies love our sport. Australian athletes are national heroes. Though sport should not be idolised, it is a gift from God which points us to our greater purpose.

When it comes to sport on the world stage, it is well known that Australia punches well above its weight. One example of this is the Olympics: despite our small size, Australia is regarded as one of the strongest competitors in the Olympic Games. In the most recent 2020 Olympics, Australia placed 6th overall behind the USA, China, Japan, Great Britain and Russia. Australian athletes left Tokyo with 46 medals – winning 17 gold, seven silver, and 22 bronze.

Amid these astounding results was the thrilling news that Australian swimmer Emma McKeon was the most decorated athlete across all sports. With four gold and three bronze medals, she tied for the most medals won by a woman in a single Olympic Games. All of Australia was proud.

But while it seems most of the world runs after sport in a big way, does sport please God?

Why We All Love Sport

‘Sport’ includes all forms of usually competitive physical activities or games. It primarily centres on the physical ability and skills of the players, who provide enjoyment to individual athletes and teams, and entertainment for spectators.

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, “Participating in sport and physical activity helps Australians to enjoy healthier, happier and more productive lives. It also helps to bring communities together and benefits the local economy.” Sport is, without doubt, an integral part of Australian culture and life.

But what is it that makes sport so appealing? Why is it not seen as an unproductive and even costly waste of time?

When Selwyn Hughes, the writer of Every Day With Jesus, commented on how human being uniquely bear the image of God, he said:

All our capacities function in a physical frame. Our body functions as the mortal instrument of our immortal spirit … our Creator has endowed human beings with five distinct areas of functioning. We are physical beings, longing beings, thinking beings, choosing beings, and feeling beings. These different capacities are not designed to work in isolation from one another but in a wonderful and magnificent integration.

It is not hard to see how the intensity of playing sport activates all of our human capacities to a high level. Indeed, the drama of sport mirrors the drama of our lives.

Sport begins with play. From the time a baby plays ‘peekaboo’ with its mother, they are learning about relationships. Playing a sport teaches children about taking turns and how to have fun. Children learn about being a leader and being a follower. They learn how to handle their emotions to get on well with others. They develop the ability to follow the rules and set boundaries. Then, as young adults, sport moves them more and more into the discipline of training and testing their limits.

For junior sport, the Australian Sports Commission website has codes of behaviour for players, parents, coaches, teachers, administrators, officials, media, and spectators. The final item for young players is to “respect the rights, dignity and worth of all participants regardless of gender, ability, cultural back ground, or religion.” This strongly echoes the Judeo-Christian belief that every person has dignity and worth because each one of us is created in the image of God.

Playing by the Rules

Codes of conduct and rules are crucial for sport. Without these, there is no meaningful game. Rules count. To avoid being discredited as a gospel minister, the apostle Paul used a sports analogy to a young Timothy. He wrote that “anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). When rules are wantonly broken, the reputations of the sport and the role model athletes are tarnished. As a result, we rapidly lose interest.

Lance Armstrong, a former road-racing cyclist, won seven consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005. This made him one of the most revered athletes of the professional sports world. But throughout his career, he consistently faced allegations of doping.

Finally, in 2012, an investigation left no doubt that he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout most of his career. He was promptly stripped of all sporting awards and received a lifetime ban from cycling. Widely regarded as the most significant fraud in professional sports history, Armstrong’s disregard for the rules resulted in untold shock and disillusionment.

The Spoiling of Sport

Australians are often described as ‘sports-mad! In Brisbane, for example, River City catamarans are permanently decked out with the colours of favourite sporting teams. Australian athletes are national heroes.

But sadly, for many fans, sport has become an idol, taking the place of God in their lives. One of Australia’s major sporting events, the National Rugby League Grand Final, has traditionally been played on Sunday afternoons. Similarly, many boys’ and girls’ sports leagues play on Sundays, which prevents them, and often their parents, from regular church attendance.

God intended sport for good, but the enemy of God’s image-bearers is a spoilsport! Today, some televised sports are dominated by gambling and beer commercials. Stadium events are sometimes marred by violent incidents involving drunken fans, profanity, blasphemy and racial slurs. Some Australian athletes misbehave on and off the field. All of this is a bad influence on society, especially children.

Winning the Greater Prize

During the recent Olympics, the Canberra Declaration’s Kurt Mahlburg wrote, “Christian athletes made a lot of headlines at the Tokyo Olympics, even in the secular media. More than any game in living memory, followers of Jesus took the opportunity to glorify God at their events, during interviews, and on social media.”

One shining example was Jean van der Westhuyzen. Along with his teammate Thomas Green, van der Westhuyzen claimed a gold medal for Australia in the men’s 1000m double kayak. The 22-year-olds held first place for the entire race and crossed the finish line just ahead of Germany. In doing so, they smashed the previous Olympic best time set by Italy way back in 1996.


Within seconds of crossing the finish line, Jean rested his paddle, looked up, raised his arm and spoke one or two words.

After the race, The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Van der Westhuyzen, who said, “I thank the good Lord. It’s an amazing Aussie team. I am so proud to be an Australian.”

Paul often compared the Christian life to running a race. To new believers, he said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize”. (1 Corinthians 9:24). Australian athletes who follow Jesus – like Jean van der Westhuyzen – can inspire us to do just that!


Dear Father, thank You for creating us in Your image with physical bodies that are fearfully and wonderfully made. Thank You for the joy and exhilaration of playing and watching sport.

Be with those who desire to use their athletic gifts to bring glory to You. Protect sport from the evil one who is doing his utmost to spoil it.

Inspire us to redeem sport so that You may delight in it and use it to strengthen our society. May sport be an inspiration to us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).

Then when our earthly race is finished, we “will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10b-11). Hallelujah!

Image by Ben Selway at Unsplash.

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