Thursday 27 October 2016

David Quinn: True believers in sport or religion don't walk away due to scandals

Published 05/08/2016 | 02:30

'We can’t be certain about what we’re watching anymore. Are we watching a clean win, or a tainted one? It’s a disaster for the athletes who are clean.'
'We can’t be certain about what we’re watching anymore. Are we watching a clean win, or a tainted one? It’s a disaster for the athletes who are clean.'

The Olympic games and the Catholic Church are two institutions beset by scandals of one sort or another.

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Sport in general has been engulfed by numerous different kinds of scandals. The question is whether those of us who are 'true believers' - whether in sport or in the Catholic Church, or both - keep faith in them or turn away disillusioned? I'm for keeping faith, but reforming where and when as necessary.

The first really big doping scandal occurred at the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, after Ben Johnson had blitzed the field in the 100m final. He was subsequently found to be a cheat on a grand scale. Since then, one sprinter after another has been found to be using performance-enhancing drugs and served temporary bans. Plenty of these have been Americans.

Back in the days of the Eastern bloc, we all rightly suspected that athletes from East Germany and elsewhere were also cheating on a grand scale. The performances in the women's sports in particular, whether track and field or in the pool, seemed too good to be true, and were. Some of the records set in the 1980s stood for decades afterwards.

Now we have heard even of African athletes who have cheated. That really was a blow, because the success of African athletes, often from desperately poor countries, especially in the middle and long distance events, seemed to harken back to the days of amateur sport and the Corinthian ideal.

Add all of this together and it explains why the Olympics don't generate anything like the excitement they once did. We can't be certain about what we're watching anymore. Are we watching a clean win, or a tainted one? It's a disaster for the athletes who are clean.

Of course, the Olympics are not alone in being affected by drugs scandals. Cycling has had plenty as well and Arsenal football manager, Arsene Wenger, doesn't think the problem is being pursued with sufficient vigour by the authorities in his sport.

All sports have been affected by betting scandals, including boxing, football and tennis. Tennis is only the latest to have been engulfed in a betting scandal and we just recently saw Maria Sharapova suspended for using a banned substance.


There have also been sex scandals in sport. College Football is huge in America and the coach of Pennsylvania State football team was convicted a few years ago of multiple counts of child abuse. Some officials from Penn State were accused of engaging in a cover-up.

Here in Ireland, we have seen sex abuse scandals involving children in the likes of boxing and swimming.

This brings us on to the Catholic Church, the reputation of which has been enormously damaged by child sex abuse scandals made much worse by the cover-ups. What is reportedly happening at Maynooth is of a different, lesser order compared with this but it hardly inspires confidence. Persistent reports of sexually inappropriate behaviour down the years by a small minority of students is not going to attract vocations.

This is separate from the question of what exactly should be taught at a seminary and what kind of spiritual formation should be received. A false dichotomy has been created between 'pastoral' priests on the one hand, and 'doctrinally rigid' priests on the other. It is possible to be pastoral and orthodox, and to be liberal and have poor people skills.

I suspect a young Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger (the future John Paul II and Benedict XVI respectively) would not have made it into some seminaries today. They would be deemed too 'rigid' because of their orthodoxy despite the fact that Fr Wojtyla was an excellent parish priest and Joseph Ratzinger was considered one of the most approachable lecturers when he worked at a university in his native Germany.


Why do people believe in sport? It's because we like competition and competition at its best breeds excellence. But we don't stop playing football (say) or watching football because we're annoyed at the scandals in world football's governing body, FIFA. We continue to support football because we believe in football itself.

Tremendous numbers of people have had their lives transformed for the better by sport and tremendous numbers of us take great pleasure out of sport. If we believe in it, we can't abandon it. Instead we have to reform it.

The same goes for religion. Religion, despite all the charges that can be made against it, has also transformed countless lives for the better down the ages as countless numbers of people can personally testify. There is also the not-so trivial matter that for religious believers, God is real and nothing is ultimately more important than that ultimate fact. The vast majority of people in all ages have believed in God or gods because we are religious by nature, and even when we are not explicitly religious we find substitutes, like various ideologies, or, in point of fact, sport itself which can inspire religious-like fervour.

So those who believe in the Catholic Church, or some other branch of Christianity, or in some other religion, cannot walk away when these have problems any more than someone who loves a given sport will stop playing it or following it because of corruption and other scandals. Instead you work to make things better. That's why I don't walk away from the Church, or from sport for that matter. You don't walk away if you believe in the thing in itself.

Irish Independent

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