Praying may give athletes the edge

Molly Malone’s Bar in central Madrid just one minute before kick-off in last week’s Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea. A solitary player is on his knees with hands clenched in prayer. The young Mexican forward, Javier Hernandez, is staring straight up to the skies.
“Fat lot of good that will do him,” mutters one sceptical bystander. The game kicks off and after a mere 36 seconds, United are one up. I don’t need to tell you who scored.

What is the role of prayer in sport? To win? To give thanks and give glory to God for our talents, all of which stem from an eternal creator? I once asked Sir Alex Ferguson if he prayed for success on the pitch. He told me had done it only once, as an Aberdeen manager and his team shipped two goals in the last minute against Rangers. But breaking all the Tony Blair rules about not “doing religion” in public, he told me with the TV cameras rolling: “Mind you, I pray every night for my friends, family and people who are ill. That’s when you think your petitions might be answered.”

In any competitive sport, praying for crude success is essentially praying for the defeat and unhappiness of another, surely something no God-fearing man can do, no, not even against Manchester City. But what if it is not a “zero sum game” between two competing elements? When David Beckham broke the famous metatarsal in 2002, the Sun called upon the English to put their hands on an image of his foot and pray in unison. It all looked sub-pagan. Rector of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, Rev David Meara, was asked to compose a prayer for the occasion. He confessed to me that he had doubts about “looking like a prat”, but he went ahead and did it. “If we can pray for a housewife who is ill, why can’t we pray for David Beckham?” he told me. Of course, unlike the zero sum world of winners and losers in sport, cures and physical recovery is surely not an essentially competitive situation.

I blush slightly to recall invoking the almighty in the Nou Camp press box in Barcelona when United were two minutes away from a 1999 European Cup defeat against Bayern Munich (it “worked” as we won 2-1. The Spanish press had the headline Dios salvó al Manchester the next day.) But if I have banished childlike notions of a slot machine with prayer going in and results coming out, does that mean there is no room for prayer at all?

What agnostic and atheist sportsmen and woman may have to bear in mind is that a believer may be in a totally different state of mind on the sports field. None of this can ever “prove” the existence of God or anything like it, and only Hernandez will ever know what was consciously in his head seconds before he scored against Chelsea, but if prayer fortifies players, motivates them psychologically, might it in purely subjective terms give them an edge?

In this sense I think there may be parallels between this sphere and faith and health. Over the years, we have seen a number of studies published that have pointed to the vital importance of some kind of religious belief system and the chances of overcoming critical illnesses. Some of them have given rise to eyebrow-raising publications such as Don Colbert’s Bible Cure For Cancer. The results of a lot of the clinical research may vary, but many of these studies, after examining large cohorts of cancer patients and other diseases have given individuals with a strongly defined spiritual framework a marginal advantage. Yes, it may be marginal, but think in sport of those photo finishes, those split second decisions in the swimming pool when athletes are separated by a mere hair’s breadth. The margins between success and failure can be tiny.

And of course, there is always the danger of idolatry, of making sport your golden calf. Making a Channel 4 film called Hallowed Be Thy Game some years ago, I caught up with a very strange man. His name was John Westwood, an obsessively dedicated Portsmouth fan. Westwood was a man of meagre means and still managed to scrape together the coppers to see Pompey home and away all season: a feat he had pulled off for many a year. He had less success in keeping his marriage together and he conceded that his wife and child had had enough when he was barely at home. They left. But he is still to be seen on the terraces decked in his trademark chequered blue and white hat, blond wig and carrying a 1950s-style rattle.

I’m not sure whether Westwood prays or not, but if he does, he’ll know of its limits. Pompey, after a few seasons in the top flight, are slumbering once more in the Championship.—

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