Think about this. You’re a top-flight footballer. You’ve just come in to the European Championships off the back of a 38-game domestic season, not including maybe 10 to 15 cup matches. Add on top of this the international qualifying campaigns and friendlies, and that you’ve racked up around 60 fixtures in the calendar year. That’s a match every six days. For a year.
In all probability you’re starting the tournament tired. You may even be keeping quiet about a niggling pain in your knee, or a sore spot in your lower back. The manager doesn’t need to know; now’s not the time to be injured. You squeezed into the 23-man final squad and, besides, your nation needs you.
Tournament football is particularly tough. The stakes are higher; the intensity is greater. The team physiotherapist knows your predicament and has a quiet word. The pressure is on him to keep you fit. The pressure is on you to be available for selection and to perform well. He has access to painkillers; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They can take the edge off and see you through. What’s more, it’s not illegal.
It’s little wonder then that when FIFA investigated the use of painkillers by international footballers at the last few World Cups the data revealed a worrying state of affairs. Results published in in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 – as well as a follow up study in 2015 – reveal that an astonishing 39 per cent of players at the 2010 South Africa World Cup took painkillers before every game. If you look at the data from 2002, 2006 and 2010 you’ll see that in each of those tournaments approximately 70 per cent of all players took painkillers at some point.
Players are under a lot of pressure at the Euros and the data shows us that likelihood of making use of painkilling drugs is high. The long-term damage of repeated misuse of painkillers is still not fully known, but consistently overriding and suppressing the body’s pain signals is likely to be very unforgiving.
What is the appropriate Christian response to this? What do we say when sport’s win-at-all-costs mentality begins to make these kinds of demands? From where do we get the power to resist the pressures of this destructive mentality? I have three ideas about where that power may flow.
The first spring is a robust biblical theology of the body. The depth and intricacy required to describe such a theology is far beyond a blog post like this, but suffice it to say here that the body is not an instrument to be wielded by the mind. Your body is not your own, it belongs to Christ; you are in stewardship of all of yourself – body, spirit, soul – and should treat your body with the dignity that it therefore deserves.
Secondly, there is the Christian’s appropriation of spiritual power. The Bible asserts that those who are Christ’s are indwelled by his Spirit, who then guides, strengthens and empowers. There is a crucial need for a Christian sportsperson to walk in this Spirit, and – by doing so – not succumb to the demands of the fleshy win-at-all costs mindset. Read the book of Galatians for the full Pauline breakdown of how this works!
Finally, and perhaps most mundanely, there is the very real power of peer support. Though mundane, this ought not to be underestimated. Many sports chaplains and other Christian organisations work tirelessly to assist athletes to make wise choices about their practices. They are able to give Christian counsel where it is needed and can stand beside those athletes and players who have the desire to be distinct – in a biblical way – from the crowd, Those who don’t want to be a part of the 70 per cent.
Granted, you’re probably not a top-flight footballer. Nor am I. But what is there here that doesn’t also apply to each one of us? We are all made of the same stuff, and suffer the same kinds of temptation. The pressure to conform to unhealthy and ill-advised norms is as real for us as it is for elite footballers. Find the strength to overcome in the word, the Spirit and in your church.
Interested in finding out more about how sport relates to faith? Join threads on Wednesday, 29 June in London to hear theologians and athletes give their thoughts over a pint. Free tickets released on Wednesday.