REASONS TO BE SPORTING – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

This August, after a long period of unprecedented bad summer weather, Britain will play host to the Olympics and Paralympics for the first time in 64 years – and across the country, millions of people will be caught up in the world’s premier sporting event.

What is it about sport? I’m not very sporty and not even a very good armchair sports enthusiast. But my dad was a great athlete: in addition to competing in the Maccabi games as a swimmer and tower diver and skiing slalom for Austria, after leaving Vienna for South Africa in 1936, he played in the Springbok ice hockey team. And my partner is mad about football, rugby and cricket – and was an Oxford ‘Blue’ in her student days, playing, both, hockey and squash for the University. So it’s hard for me to avoid the annual round of sporting fixtures…

Winston Churchill famously quipped that ‘jaw, jaw’ is preferable to ‘war, war.’ Perhaps one day, sport might become a safe and healthy substitute for war? The English language speaks of ‘playing’ sports and of ‘games’. The words, ‘play’ and ‘games’ evoke childhood pursuits. Of course, childhood is a time of strong emotions – anger, fear and jealousy, as well as love and joy. Whatever the arena, when playing and watching sport, intense emotions get played out, competitive feelings are released and expressed, and competitors and their supporters, alike, are desperate to ‘win.’ Of course, football, especially, has had problems with football hooliganism – and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, highlighted the problem of racism amongst some football supporters. Nevertheless, overall, by contrast with the ‘theatre of war’, in the sports arena, instead of ‘triumph’ and ‘victory’ at the price of death and destruction, the rewards are well-being and trophies for the mantelpiece.

And it’s not just that sport is a safe substitute for war, like war it creates the context for the expression of some of our best human qualities – not just our worst ones: courage, fortitude, determination, resilience and endurance. Moreover, even in those sports, which centre on single athletes competing against other single athletes – like tennis singles competitions, for example – there is always a team behind each player. And so, playing sport is a cooperative endeavour.

But is sport ‘Jewish’? Well, apart from the fact that both the Maccabi games and Israel’s involvement in sport testify to the fact that Jews do play sport, we know that supporting a football team is a great Jewish pastime (my mother’s family were Arsenal supporters) – and even the Sages, although more concerned with life skills than sport per se, taught that a father’s duties towards his son, included teaching him to swim! (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b). So, whatever you’re doing this August, do take the opportunity to share in the Olympic and Paralympic spirit.