WHEN FAITH INTERFERES WITH SPORT
Abiding to the worldwide tradition of sport, Dorsa Derakhshani and her fellow chess players completed competition at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival. Miss Derakhshani was representing the Iran national team and no one at the tournament noticed anything strange about the eighteen year old chess player who simply looked like any teenager you’d see in the British territory just outside of Southern Spain.
In fact, Miss Derakhshani’s chess play was also credited – she displayed a strong use of the ‘four knight’s defence’ which bought her victories in two of the matches that she played however she still managed to gauge criticism from members of her national chess federation.
That criticism was mainly constructed by head of the Iranian chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh. It was said that Miss Derakhshani had committed an ‘act of treason’ for not wearing a hijab whilst competing, a piece of head wear that had become compulsory for Iranian women to wear since the 1979 Iranian revolution but instead wearing a simple hairband to contain her long blonde hair. This resulted in Miss Derakhshani being excluded from the national side for her failure to comply with the dress regulations that were in place.
Bizarrely, Miss Derakhshani was not the only member of her family to be banned from the national chess side for failure to comply with the team regulations within the chess festival. Her fifteen year old brother, Borna Derakhshani was also excluded from the side due to his compliance to play an Israeli in the same tournament. Iran currently does not view Israel as a state which has caused political tensions between the two nations.
IS RELIGION REALLY LIKE THIS?
In light of reading this story, there were more questions than answers that entered my mind – how can religion be so strict that it conflicts with something a lot of people within the world love? I also found myself asking – would an all loving God want for such conflict to occur over such a simple matter? In an attempt to find answers to my questions, I took a trip to the University of Hertfordshire religion venue, named ‘The Key’ and met the University Chaplain, Dr Reverend Allan Smith.
There is no actual former name to address Rev Smith who is almost like a superhero among certain students attending the University of Hertfordshire in the sense that he is head of the Chaplaincy by day. By night he moonlights as an American football coach for the university side, the Hertfordshire Hurricanes where he is known as Coach Smith. Next to this, Smith also has history in other sports such as Fencing and Ballroom Dancing and knows all about trying to find the right balance between faith and sport.
FOUNDING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SPORT AND RELIGION
‘Sport actually has a long association with religion,’ Smith informs me when we sit down. He is, of course, correct. Merseyside soccer clubs Liverpool and Everton were devised from St Domingo Chapel Bible class which took place in the local area before they split to make the bitter rivals they are today. Manchester City were formed at St Mark’s Church, West Gorton in 1879 before they became the oil-rich giants they are more commonly known as. It is no secret that many Premier League football clubs are formed from religious backgrounds.
Smith goes on to explain to about how some sports actually acted as a religious practise back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He explains ‘archery was used as a physical activity in a religious practise’. The example that Smith is talking about is Kyūdō, the Japanese martial art of archery which explores the idea of spiritual development – this is just one of the examples of physical activity acting as a religious practise.
Smith also points towards the Bible reading found in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 where the disciple Paul uses runners in the Greek games as examples of how Christians should live. Paul explains that people ‘cannot afford to become distracted by things off to the side of their course. If they do, their effectiveness in running will surely diminish.’ Smith expands on this by talking about the word disciple. ‘Disciple comes from the word discipline’ states Smith, ‘as an Athlete and as a practitioner of religious believes – it is important to continue as a disciple to your area.’
A VEHICLE FOR RELIGION IN SPORT?
Smith’s description of discipleship being a discipline in sport leads very nicely onto the next question I ask him, which talks about how sport acts as a vehicle for religion.
I begin this point by asking him about how it comes into his ministry. ‘If I just waited in my office for the people of this university to come to me, this would be a very lonely job,’ explains Smith. ‘People actually ask me why am I with the American Football team on a Sunday morning instead of in church? My response is simple, I need to be in a student’s natural habitat.’ Of course, one of the Chaplaincy’s main responsibility is to make engage in fellowship with the staff and students of the university that may seek benefit from visiting the Chaplin but if those people do not come, they must be found. ‘I have made many strong relationships from going out and meeting people,’ adds Smith whose oldest friends date back to around fifteen years ago when he first arrived in Hertfordshire.
I expand on Smith’s point about fellowship and friendship and ask him the question on whether or not it is actually okay to pray for victory. It’s a topic that has always torn the religious athletes across all sports and I can visibly see the cogs turning in the Reverend’s brain as he words an answer to give me. He begins by telling me that ‘prayer structure is so important in regards to this’ as I ask him to expand he continues by saying ‘you have to follow ACTS acronym.’ ACTS stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication and according to Smith, with this prayer structure asking for a victory in sport okay. What is not okay is wishing ill luck or health upon your opponent in order to victory and surely no one in their right mind would ever wish such bad luck upon an opponent.
Furthermore, Smith points me into the direction of Robert Ellis’ book named ‘The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport.’ Smith explains to me that he recently reviewed this book and bought out the idea that God is always asking us to grow as people which made me think myself, God is always asking our teams to improve and evolve, if we stay still how can we justify being rewarded with victories? It was a point that really made me think.
Upon further discussion of the book, Smith also noted that the book states that ‘God is a playful God in other words, both teams are praying as hard as each other – there’s a field, sort it out among yourselves!’ It’s an analogy I can agree with and brings the term ‘may the best team/man win’ to the front of my mind.
A BARRIER FOR RELIGION IN SPORT?
It is seemingly obvious that religion and sport can be a positive combination however I remember why I am here conducting this interview. How can religion be so prominent that it has such an effect on an innocent chess player such as Dorsa Derakhshani?
I ask Dr Reverend Coach Smith about how something that can be so helpful in regards to sport can be as detrimental. It is safe to say that Smith has his views on the matter and states ‘you should enter each arena on their terms’. After further explanation, it is obvious to see that Smith means that religion should not be involved in sport and that the purity of whatever game is being played should be kept. It is a nice concept and one I feel that the majority of sportsmen and women across the planet would agree with.
We talk about a Muslim student who approached Smith in regards to his training programme during Ramadan. The student could not train during the day due to the fact that if he abides to the Islamic faith, he is unable to eat during sunlight in Ramadan so he had to break his fast at night and go to the twenty-four hour gym to train. ‘All that’s important is that you get the stuff you need to do done’ states Smith. The approach outlines that if an individual has a will to achieve, they will. I tell him how it’s difficult for Muslim women who wear the hijab to compete in sports and though it is difficult, the respect for culture is there among athletes and with Nike releasing their sports hijab – it surely will become easier for Muslim women to overcome barriers to participate in sport.
THE NEXT STEP?
As the Dr Reverend Coach Smith winds down from his latest season with the Hertfordshire Hurricanes, he has left me with a lot of food for thought. It seems like so many things that religion and faith can have such a positive effect on sport though when taken too far, the results can be frustrating and detrimental to more than just the athlete involved.
An insightful and interesting man who has dipped his fingers in the American Football, Fencing and Ballroom Dancing pies as well as maintain his role in the Chaplaincy – the University of Hertfordshire’s Chaplain certainly is not an ordinary chaplain.