POPE FRANCIS, just after leading the Angelus Prayer on Palm Sunday, took notice of the United Nations’ International Day of Sports for Peace and Development. Pope Francis remarked that while most sports events around the world were suspended because of the coronavirus quarantine, nevertheless the values engendered by sports were valuable in the global effort to push back against the pandemic.
He pointed out at least three qualities that sports developed among the young sportsmen and women whom he addressed from the huge St Peter’s Basilica that for the first time in a long while witnessed a Holy Week celebration that was bereft of a congregation in completely empty church because of the Italian lockdown: endurance, team work, and giving the best of oneself.
I have always believed that achieving anything worthwhile in any endeavor requires a marathon mentality. Though talent, hard work and a bit of luck are naturally ingredients of a winning team or a winning run, nevertheless the capacity for endurance, resilience and resistance in the homestretch are important elements for successful athletes.
As the world battles the virus that has now infected over a million people causing countless deaths in over a hundred countries in almost all continents of the globe, it is important that communities practice the patient strength required to put up our community defenses by following the appeal to self-isolate and observe quarantine restrictions. Athletes are naturally active and full of energy, but this time we should listen to the poet’s injunction that “they also serve who only stand and wait.”
No individual athlete or sports team wins matches or games, and goes on to earn championships unless there is teamwork. Even tracksters or tennis players or Formula One drivers depend on others in their teams who work as coaches, trainers, technicians and rely on them to achieve success in their field. Every athlete who succeeds works effectively with others.
Pope Francis, an Argentinian who was and remains a football enthusiast, supported his beloved San Lorenzo Football Club – a team that stood out for their team play and their winning ways. Most champion teams may have a superstar or two but teams that achieve lasting success largely rely on their capacity for team work and ability to play with coherence, team chemistry and good team relationships.
The Latin word, fraternitas, which Pope Francis used can normally be translated as fraternity or brotherhood, or the ability to work well and effectively with others. No medical doctor or nurse in the frontline of fire can do their work properly without working in a fraternal manner with their hospital staff (medical technicians, laboratory analysts, cleaners and servers, administrators and security people) just as political leaders cannot make critical decisions without relying on medical advisers such as epidemiologists, scientists and statisticians.
“Giving the best of oneself,” a phrase used by Pope Francis, captures the quality that can be considered as one of the fruits that athletes gain from sports. Young people involved in sports learn to sacrifice, engage in honest hard work in order to develop their talents and skills. They develop a generous spirit if they are to succeed in their craft and become excellent members of teams. It is the same spirit we now need in our efforts against the pandemic.
If our communities are to beat back the advance of coronavirus, we would need the sacrifice and generosity not only of heroic frontliners putting their lives on the line but also the contribution of communities and citizens who provide support and encouragement, and the resolute determination of people to follow physical distancing and other guidelines that medical experts provide.
In brief, this period of quarantine gives athletes and fans, coaches and trainers, teachers and mentors, an opportunity to re-assess the value and contributions of sports. Sports is more than just the thrill of winning and losing, and the accumulation of crowns and trophies.
It is perhaps time for a second wind, particularly, in collegiate sports: to begin to consider more important dimensions such as the building of character, the development of sportsmanship, and the formation of young people in the qualities underscored by Pope Francis. He highlighted the importance of endurance, teamwork, and generosity. These are the same qualities required if we are to tackle problems such as the pandemic that has engulfed our world, the current climate crisis, and social injustice expressed in the twin challenges of overcoming poverty and inequality.