I had been waiting weeks to write this blog post, but it all came crashing down yesterday. I wanted to write a blog post on my beloved Vancouver Canucks, who have been in the NHL for 40 years and whom I have followed since I was 9 years old, when boys follow their heroes with naiveté and childlike wonder. I was going to make it biblical by drawing a parallel from the Canucks winning the Stanley Cup after 40 years to the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land. It was going to be sweet and winsome.
Instead, the Boston Bruins were the better hockey team and they deservedly won the Stanley Cup and my hometown decided to light itself on fire. I know, I know, the people who rioted in Vancouver last night were a small minority, who have ashamed and embarrassed the vast majority of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but why do sports allow one’s emotions to run so high? Why do teams, drawn from athletic mercenaries from the world over, still manage to have such a hold on fans, even those, the majority, who would never imagine rioting? Why should I care even today and why should it hurt to lose?
Sports is like life at high-speed, I think, where mistakes come back to haunt you not years down the road, but the instant the puck is turned over or the moment the three-pointer hits the rim at the buzzer and bounces out. Redemption is gained in a moment when you sneak in from the blue line and blast a shot by the goalie to vindicate your foolish penalty minutes earlier. Victory is clear-cut and so is loss, the stinging pain of defeat, which never seems so instantaneous and clear cut in most human pursuits or professions. Most of us do not think of our lives in terms of losses and victories, but in terms of a day at work and then another day at work, in which we pursue our vocations, yet never are judged so harshly in a moment as a loser or victor in front of thousands.
There is, then, the communal aspect, in which millions watch what is taking place and invest their own hopes and dreams in the talents and pursuits of others, in which Roberto Luongo, who I have never met and know nothing about, "ruins" my day because he let in too many goals, or is an excuse for a city to be destroyed because all sense of proportion is lost. The dark side is obvious, as seen in pictures and video of rioters from Vancouver, but it is not new.
The city of Constantinople in 532 AD was divided into two horse-racing “teams,” the Greens and the Blues (the Whites and the Reds had already been incorporated into the Greens and Blues or just faded away), whose teams raced at the Hippodrome, the remains of which are still visible in modern day Istanbul. These horse-racing fans were more complex than Canuck fans who rioted yesterday, perhaps, with these teams representing political factions and neighborhoods and even joining forces against the Emperor Justinian, but their results were also more savage by far. According to Procopius, 30,000 people – you read that right, 30,000 – died in the Nika riots of 532 AD.
That communal aspect, though, can have a side of light, in which friends, family and strangers share in the joy of a team playing and winning and reflecting momentary glory on its followers. There is a sense of belonging and joy which is translucent, but also fleeting. Which is to say what exactly? I suppose that sports, simply stated, cannot bring you to the Promised Land, except for passing moments, in which you experience moments of joy, hope, faith and even love. Improper sporting devotion, or twisted devotion, or pretended devotion as an excuse to destruction certainly can bring you to ruin. This is a lot like life in general.
Sports is so much a microcosm of life and it seems hardwired in us to project our hopes and dreams onto teams whose victories and losses are just fleeting. Sports does hold up the sharp reality of victory and loss and the Apostle Paul, who knew of the games, such as the Olympic Games and Isthmian Games, uses sporting analogies to speak of the spiritual life. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 Paul says,
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
We might not all be athletes in the physical sense and so we are left to cheer for those who represent us and our childhood hopes, or our cities and countries, and we rejoice with them and are crushed in defeat. But we can be spiritual athletes, who” exercise self-control in all things,” and this self-control ought to include the proper way to handle a crushing defeat. After all, sports is only a microcosm of life, an analogy that sheds light on our true purposes, and in how we live our lives we can all continue to strive to win the prize. And hope for next year; always hope for next year. As a Canucks fan, you can almost see the Promised Land and someday, I want to enter in, if only for a moment.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens