Basketball was my high school sport. Once after a game we lost, supporters for the other team congratulated me for being a good sport. I appreciated the compliment, but wasn't quite sure I understood it. I had played well that day, but had a feeling there was a deeper reason for their noticing me. Maybe it was because I never was much of a competitor in the sense of wanting to beat someone else at the game. I've wondered many times since then - what is the true competitive spirit?
I'm reminded of this again as current events in the sporting world frequently beg the question. Although there are countless examples of unselfish sportsmanship shown by team players everywhere, there are also disturbing and dangerous moments of conflict and escalating rage - breaking rules, cutting remarks, physical aggression.
Athletes, like everyone else, need to be seen as fundamentally good people. The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, deeply believed that the understanding of creation as essentially good was crucial to all improvement and healing in society. The basis for this understanding is logical. God is the infinite Being, purely good. Creation is the effect of God, the expression of the Supreme Being. She wrote, "Man and woman as coexistent and eternal with God forever reflect, in glorified quality, the infinite Father-Mother God" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 516).
This spiritual fact that men and women inherit, or reflect, God's nature is the impetus behind all efforts to be generous, cooperative, and sportsmanlike. One famous example of this selfless spirit is reported in the Bible's book of Genesis. Abraham and his cousin Lot, each with his own tents, flocks, herds, and herdmen had journeyed to Bethel, where they were trying to share the same land. But there wasn't enough room for both, and there was competition between the herdmen. So Abraham said to Lot, "Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren" (13:8).
Abraham went on to offer Lot first choice of a portion of their common land. Lot chose the part that looked most promising. Abraham moved on graciously, and with confidence in God, he prospered.
The word compete is so often thought of as striving to outdo someone else for acknowledgment, prize, supremacy, profit, and so on. It can also involve opposition, standing in the way of and even combating the efforts of others to acquire the desired goal.
But in its basic meaning, compete is to stand together for something, a meeting, a coinciding. This can point to cooperation, not opposition; unity, not division.
Would it be so crazy to envision athletic competitions where players would all be supporting each other, and "opposing" teams would come together to teach and encourage each other in the effort to achieve a common goal? How about players that cheer for each other and even award the other the trophy, in the spirit of Abraham?
In so doing, who loses? We are brothers and sisters. Helping each other strengthens our universal family and actually adds to each individual's own sense of well being and accomplishment.
When it comes to the subject of winning, I have loved one of Jesus' parables about who is worthy of the grand prize of entering into God's kingdom. In the story, the King explains that those good people who took him in when he was a stranger, fed him when hungry, clothed him, visited him when he was sick, and came to him when he was in prison shall inherit the kingdom. But the good people quizzed him, asking when was he ever in such conditions that he needed their help. He answered, "...Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:40).
Playing fields in the sports world are miniatures of the playing fields of life. Good behavior by one player enriches everyone. Good sportsmanship on the field, at home, at work, in the community is standing together and helping each other.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor