Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

It has been anything but a shining week for individual sports in the Olympic trials. There may be no i in team, but some sports are definitely more I-centered than others.

Consider the comments made by swimmer Tyler Clary, who spoke critically about his teammate Michael Phelps, who has “been asking to get beat for the longest time” by virtue of his paltry work ethic. But Clary continued:

“I’ve always called myself more of a blue-collar worker . . . But the fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make . . . when I finally beat him, [it] is going to be a huge deal in my mind, because it would be complete satisfaction.”

Clary made these comments after training alongside of Phelps. In other words, Clary talked outside of the locker room.

Can you imagine that behavior happening in the NFL? Clary’s teammates would have jacked him up during the next practice for causing disunity. Unfortunately, this kind of ethos is common in individual-based team sports.

Another example can be found in running within the photo-finish controversy surrounding Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoah. After tying for the third place spot in the 100m, Tarmoah conceded the spot for third to her teammate Felix—rather than run in a single-race playoff. Why? Tarmoah stated:

“I worked really, really hard to earn that spot in the 100,” Tarmoh said. “It was more than me winning, it was me practicing since November and training every day. It was me cramping up in the middle of practice, me throwing up at practices. It was me getting mentally prepared, physically prepared, then going to the trials, and making it through each round and staying focused.

“It was me knowing that when I crossed that finish line, that I put my all on the track, waiting for my time to come on the board and seeing what place I got. That’s why it hurt so much, to see that it was my time and my name on the board in third place.”

Go back and reread that response. There were plenty of “I” and “me” pronouns in those two paragraphs. It appears that Tarmoah was racing for individual glory, not for the unified team glory of USA track.

The Church and Unity

Individual-based team sports may inherently produce such I-centered responses. It may be merely a product of our individualistic culture. Either way, those attitudes that breed disunity have no place within the Christian community. Consider the following Bible quotes:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:11–13).

“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

“Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:1–3).

The local church is supposed to be united. The various members are supposed to work together, to bring their various skills and gifts to the altar so that the whole of the church body benefits from this team of saints.

Unity was not only preached and expected by Paul and Peter, it was also reaffirmed throughout much of church history. Church father Ignatius of Antioch described the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The First Council of Constantinople wrote his description into church law and made it official doctrine in 381 AD.

Even church reformer Desiderius Erasmus would not let his frustration with the Catholic church force him to leave (unlike his contemporary Martin Luther). Erasmus cited unity in his refusal to leave saying“I will put up with this Church until I see a better one; and it will have to put up with me, until I become better.”

The Church has always been understood as a united team. And this basic ethical quality runs contrary to the ethos of individual sports.

Churches would do well to watch the Olympics for the team sports. There is considerable talent in both individual and team sports. Individual sports will be thrilling and magical. But team-based sports do a much better job demonstrating things like accountability, commitment, teamwork, encouragement, and unity.

When the Church operates like track and field or swimming, it falls. When it functions like basketball or soccer, it succeeds.