God wills them to win

Does being a Christian improve your sporting performance? Cole Moreton reveals the growing congregation of sporting stars who pray as they play
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is a terrifying thought. Jonah "The Whale" Lomu is 16 stones and moves at the pace of a top sprinter. As he thunders down the wing for New Zealand's rugby union team his opponents could be forgiven for dropping to their knees in prayer.

He would be delighted if that happened, and not just because it would clear his way. Lomu - the brightest star of the World Cup in South Africa this month - may run at the opposition like a charging bull, but off the pitch the All Black is a shy young man and a devout Christian. He doesn't drink or smoke, and has been described by others in the New Zealand camp as quiet and "God-loving".

The aggressive, highly competitive world of international rugby may seem an unlikely place to find churchgoers, but Jonah Lomu is only one of a band of believers playing in the World Cup. "Christians are not wimps," says the former New Zealand loose forward Michael Jones, who refuses to play on Sundays.

The rise of evangelicals to the top ranks of a highly physical, frequently violent, intensely competitive sport such as rugby union is not a coincidence. Most sports - golf, cricket, football and athletics - have a growing band of born again Christians in their senior ranks.

Getting to the top of any sport requires a ruthlessness not often associated with Christian teaching. And these days the road to the pinnacle of sport is littered with all sorts of commercial inducements and product endorsements, which many Christians might almost regard as sinful. And in rugby you have to sing a lot of dirty songs as well as downing vast quantities of beer.

So how do these Christians reconcile the altruism of their faith with the competitive and commercial imperatives of modern sport? What do their churches think of their participation in sports which demand behaviour some would regard as far from holy?

These issues are being played out in the World Cup in South Africa. A born-again rugby fifteen would be quite formidable: the squads from Tonga, Western Samoa, Australia and Wales all have several true believers. Chester Williams, the only black member of the South African squad, prays and reads the Bible every day. A photograph of Williams diving for the line in his Springbok strip appears in an evangelistic booklet produced by the International Bible Society to coincide with the World Cup. "The most valuable skill a player can have is the power to handle life's pressures through Jesus Christ," says the caption.

Football's best-known believer used to be the Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle, but the halo has been passed to his striker and former captain Gavin Peacock, who wrote a book about his faith called Never Walk Alone. It was co-written with Alan Comfort, a former Middlesborough winger who is now a vicar in Essex. Together they hold Bible study meetings for London- based players, who have included Dennis Bailey of Queens Park Rangers and the Crystal Palace winger John Salako.

Comfort is one of 45 clergymen who work as chaplains to football clubs, a development initiated by Don Revie at Leeds in the 1970s. Football has historic links with religion: witness the sectarian rivalry between Glasgow Rangers and Celtic and the number of Premiership clubs such as Everton and Southampton which began life as church teams.

In athletics the mantle of Eric Liddell, hero of the film Chariots of Fire, has passed to Kriss Akabusi, an Olympic medal-winning hurdler and former captain of the England athletics team. Millions of television viewers saw an emotional Akabusi drop to his knees by the side of the track to give thanks after a victory in the 1990 European Championships. "It was spontaneous.Take that out of me and you lose the man." he says.

"Sportsmen are marketable commodities. Everything around them is open to public interest and intrigue. The most central thing in my life has been my faith. I can't talk about my life and cut that out."

Akabusi is in no doubt that his faith and his sporting performance became inseparable. When he found God in 1987 he was expected by many to lose the aggression that fuels winning sportsmen. Instead, when the former soldier joined a Charismatic church near his home in Southampton he turned into a world beater. "It gave me an added edge, an added motivation," he says. "I began to believe that my talent was God-given, and this was my ministry. He had provided this forum for me to express the gospel. That gave me aggression and enthusiasm to do the best I could. When I betrayed that and wanted to give up, I would pray 'Lord, if it is right, give me the strength to do one more'."

The marked improvement in his performance attracted fellow athletes. "People got the wrong end of the stick, and said, 'Oh, if I pray five times a day God's going to help me run faster.' It doesn't work like that. God gave me the right to work, not to win."

Conversion does not always have such performance-enhancing effects. The Rev Andrew Wingfield-Digby, director of a network called Christians In Sport to which Akabusi belongs, admits as much. "Sometimes people find that their motivation is affected negatively. They suddenly have something more important to live for than just the next match." But that is usually only temporary; a happy athlete is a better one, he says.

Christians In Sport has a mailing list of 10,000 supporters, who contribute to an income of pounds 250,000 per year. An Evangelical missionary organisation, it promotes Christianity through sporting relationships among students and in local churches.

Yet its place in sport is far from accepted. Wingfield-Digby achieved a higher profile than he wanted last year when incoming English cricket supremo Ray Illingworth dismissed him from the unofficial position of chaplain to the national side; Illingworth said he wouldn't be picking the sort of players who needed a shoulder to cry on.

Illingworth may be underestimating the power of faith in cricket. "Wingers", as he is known to the players, still acts as informal chaplain to Test and county players. Six members of the visiting South African team prayed together last summer; Jimmy Adams and Ian Bishop are currently seeking divine assistance during the West Indies' tour.

The rise of these born-again sports heroes also marks a shift in the attitude of the churches to sporting competition. The sort of Evangelical churches that support Wingfield-Digby's organisation used to see sport as a distraction from the serious business of preaching the gospel, and physical exercise as a means of learning self-discipline. But attitudes have changed. Inter-church leagues for soccer and cricket have grown in the past 30 years; and those who pursue contact sports such as rugby on a Saturday and sing hymns on a Sunday argue that there is nothing in the Bible to say you can't be aggressive about life, within the rules. "Any Christian who rushes at another man at 20 miles an hour and risks injuring him is clearly going to have to weigh up whether he can do that with a clear conscience," says Wingfield-Digby. "That's difficult, but not impossible."

The people who preach through their sport certainly receive the support of the people in the pews. They feel their faith is affirmed by seeing fellow believers at the pinnacle of sporting achievement.

But fawning church attention can quickly turn to condemnation when idols turn out to have feet of clay, as Justin Fashanu discovered. He was Britain's first black pounds 1m player, who scored a Goal of the Season and became a born- again sporting icon. "Don't give up or let Satan get you down," he told readers of the Evangelical youth magazine Jesus And Me in 1985, while at his sporting peak - advice one hopes he remembered five years later, when the Sun devoted its front page to revealing him as the country's first openly gay footballer, and a fairly sexually active one at that. Fans among the faithful saw him as a sinner; he in turn felt let down.

Glenn Hoddle the exquisitely talented England and Monaco midfielder appeared on the cover of 21st Century Christian magazine, under the headline "Hoddle Signs For God". But in 1991 Hoddle said he believed in reincarnation - not exactly standard Christian doctrine - and in February this year he told the footballing magazine Four Four Two: "I never said I was a born-again Christian. I don't believe the things born-again Christians believe." Hoddle says he has a very individual relationship with God.

Football crowds are legendary for their cruelty, so it takes some courage to come out as a Christian. Kriss Akabusi says he knows several famous sportsmen and women who prefer to keep their beliefs quiet. But if either Jonah Lomu or Chester Williams helps their team to lift the World Cup in a couple of weeks' time a few more may come out of the Christian closet.

Gavin Peacock, footballer

Gavin Peacock is known in the dressing room as The Rev. He doesn't go out drinking with the lads, hosts Bible studies for other players in his home and doesn't swear off the pitch. Chelsea paid Newcastle pounds 1.2m for him in 1993, and he was in the side beaten by Manchester United in the 1994 FA Cup Final. He became a Christian at 18. "I started going to church and realised that Jesus was not a shadowy figure from history but the Son of God who deserved my trust," he says. While other players put their kit on in a certain way or go through other lucky pre-match rituals, Peacock goes into a quiet place like the bathroom and prays, often out loud.

Va'aiga Tuigamala, rugby league player

Known as "Inga the Winger", Tuigamala won more than 39 caps as a powerful member of the All Blacks rugby union side from 1989 to 1993. Then he switched codes to play for Wigan, the most successful rugby league side of all time. Born in Western Samoa, he was brought up as a regular churchgoer but it was not until 1986 that he became a born-again Christian. "People do not bat an eyelid if you are into the New Age movement or Eastern religion, but if you say you are a follower of Jesus Christ they freak out," he says. While playing for the All Blacks he carried a Bible in his kit bag and on his wrist wore a sweatband decorated with a cross.

Bernhard Langer, golfer

The German golfer took the final putt in the 1991 Ryder Cup. If he holed it, Europe would tie with the United States and retain the cup. He missed, from just 6ft away, and took a lot of blame for the defeat. It hurt, and still does. But he said: "Looking at it from a Christian point of view, there was only one perfect human being - the Lord Jesus Christ - and we killed him. I only missed a putt."

Bernhard Langer became a born-again Christian in 1985, during a Bible study held for players on the US professional tour. Three years later he helped start a similar series of regular meetings for those on the European tour.

Kriss Akabusi, hurdler

Separated from their Nigerian mother and father during his childhood, Kriss Akabusi and his younger brother were brought up by foster parents. At 16, he joined the Army and began to develop as an athlete. He bowed out of competitive sport after winning bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992; he had won 10 medals during an eight-year career as a 400m runner and hurdler. During the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh he found a Good News modern-language version of the New Testament in his room. He read it from cover to cover. "There was a guy in there," he once told a church service. "I'd used his name before, but I never realised he actually lived. I thought he was like the tooth fairy or Father Christmas."

Peter Knowles, footballer

Peter Knowles walked out of football in 1969 with the words, "I cannot be a clogger and a Christian". Knowles was a Young England cap strongly tipped for a place in the senior squad for the World Cup in Mexico the following year when he asked Wolverhampton Wanderers to release him from his contract. Ignoring pleas from the club and his mother, Knowles quit to work full-time as a Jehovah's Witness with his wife Jean. "I am not interested in material things," he said. "I want to save people, not entertain them."