Females in Elite Sport: What Is the Christian Position?

COMMENTARY: Sport offers everyone — males and females — an opportunity to cultivate virtue, which provides a gateway for athletes to seek a life of holiness in union with the Triune God.

Hong Kong's Lee Wai Sze (front) celebrates after taking bronze in the women's track cycling sprint finals ahead of Germany's Emma Hinze during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Velodrome in Izu, Japan, on Aug. 8.
Hong Kong's Lee Wai Sze (front) celebrates after taking bronze in the women's track cycling sprint finals ahead of Germany's Emma Hinze during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Izu Velodrome in Izu, Japan, on Aug. 8. (photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

A recent article on elite female sports raised some eyebrows in Catholic circles, and for good reason. 

With events at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo as a backdrop, Anthony Esolen offers his reflections in “The Faith and Women’s Sports,” and concludes: 

“What women’s sports are not is culturally necessary. We could do without them. In the real world in which men in teams must sometimes fight against other men in teams, or against the brute forces of nature either in building or in protecting what has been built, we cannot do without the cultural practices that train boys to be such men.”

Others have drawn similar conclusions presented in even more crass ways

In a nutshell, these positions are that men and women have different physiques for a reason. Men are stronger, faster, jump higher than women because their bodies are designed to protect women and children through warrior like activity. Team sports are necessary because they reinforce these combatant tendencies and build strong masculine traits needed to safeguard persons, homes and communities. 

Women’s bodies are more delicate designed for childbirth and nurturing. Women’s involvement in sport is pointless, evidenced by the fact that they cannot jump as high, run as fast, or throw as far as men; they do not draw large crowds, possess huge endorsements nor produce revenue like men; and the more they train the more their bodies are corrupted becoming like those of men, even losing the ability to bear children or requiring abortions when conception is possible, all leading to the final abomination when women choose women as sex partners.   

Carried to its logical conclusion, every competitive female athlete needs to lay down her arms (e.g., leotards, cleats, gloves), find a man, get married and procreate. It's a way of thinking that's not much different from that in some countries where women are killed for failing to wear a head covering or desiring an education or wanting to — heaven forbid — jump rope.

While Esolen makes an important point about certain differences between the sexes and even the importance of strong masculinity, his piece is a distraction, seemingly intent on getting a rise out of women who perhaps in his view have subscribed too much to radical feminist ideologies. Yet even when we rightfully acknowledge the real ramifications of radical feminism, there is no need to relegate women’s elite sports to a mere useless pastime. Esolen and others who argue the same have missed a fundamental point about competitive sports for both sexes. 

From a Christian perspective, sport offers an opportunity to cultivate virtue, the habitual striving for excellence in accordance with our inherent dignity as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, something of relevance to both males and females, which, in turn, provides a gateway for athletes to seek a life of holiness in union with the Triune God. 

We find support for this in the sports imagery of St. Paul, who, for example, speaks to both men and women about finishing the course (Acts 20:24), discipline (1 Corinthians 9 :24-27; 1 Timothy. 4:8), self-control (1 Corinthians 9:25) commitment (1 Corinthians 9:26, Galatians 2:2, Philippians 2:16), winning (1 Corinthians 9:25, Philippians 3:14), perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-2) and finishing well (2 Timothy 4:7-8, 1 Timothy 6:12). 

Pope St. John Paul reflects upon the words of St. Paul in his 1984 homily given at the Olympic Stadium in Rome during the Jubilee Year of the Redeemer. His basic point is that Christians seek to elevate, correct — redeem — all human endeavors, including sports:

“[St. Paul] recognized the fundamental validity of sport, considering it not just as a term of comparison to illustrate a higher ethical and aesthetic ideal, but also in its intrinsic reality as a factor in the formation of man and as part of his culture and his civilization.” 

He continues: 

“St. Paul also emphasized the interior and spiritual significance of sport: ‘Every athlete exercises self-control in all things’ (1 Cor. 9:25). This recognizes the healthy dose of balance, self-discipline, sobriety, and therefore, in a word, of virtue, which is implied in the practice of sport.” 

It is the thought of St. Paul that provides the foundation for the theology of sport fleshed out by John Paul, in the same homily (emphasis added):

“Sport is making good use of the body, an effort to reaching optimum physical condition, which brings marked consequences of psychological well-being. From our Christian faith we know that, through baptism, the human person, in his or her totality and integrity of soul and body, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own, you were bought with a price (that is, with the blood of Christ the Redeemer). So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19- 20).

“Sport is competitiveness, a contest for winning a crown, a cup, a title, a first place. But from the Christian faith, we know that the “imperishable crown,” the “eternal life” which is received from God as a gift but which is also the goal of a daily victory in the practice of virtue is much more valuable. And if this is a really important form of striving, again according to St. Paul it is this: “But earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor 12:31), which means the gifts that best serve the growth of the Kingdom of God in yourselves and in the world!

“Sport is the joy of life, a game, a celebration, and as such it must be properly used and perhaps, today, freed from excess technical perfection and professionalism, through a recovery of its free nature, its ability to strengthen bonds of friendship, to foster dialogue and openness to others, as an expression of the richness of being, much more valid and to be prized than having, and hence far above the harsh laws of production and consumption and all other purely utilitarian and hedonistic considerations in life.

“Sport reaches its fullness in the Gospel of love, which we have heard proclaimed through the words of Jesus, quoted by St. John, and which is summed up in the single commandment… of Christ: Love! Love one another! Abide in the love of Christ and open up your hearts to one another! This is the secret of life, and also the deepest and most authentic dimension of sport!”

We experienced the beauty of these truths during the most inspiring moments at the Tokyo Olympics, when athletes gave praise to God for their successes; when after winning gold, the female weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines held up her Miraculous Medal for all to see, or when the Fijian rugby players sang a hymn to God after winning theirs:

We have overcome
We have overcome
By the blood of the lamb
And the word of the Lord
We have overcome

For more information on the Christian perspective of sport go to the website of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and life, which includes the new document “Giving the Best of Yourself.”