Ken Irons returns with an article that takes a glimpse at a host of high-profile athletes who struggled to combine their relationship with religion with a career in sport.
Perhaps the most famous example of a sports star being governed by his religious beliefs is that of Muhammad Ali, although these beliefs were unquestionably more racial than religious – the organisation he belonged to being the Black Muslims.
Although Ali’s hagiographers liked to depict him as a man of near saintly proportions, his treatment of his fellow man often belied this theory.
For example, his close friendship with the infamous Malcolm X was responsible for Ali joining the Muslims, but when Malcolm X fell out of favour and was later assassinated by the Muslims, Ali entirely washed his hands of him and could not find a word to say in his favour.
Similarly, the notion that Ali had rejected conscription on moral grounds because he did not wish to kill Vietnamese people was a travesty. He was ordered by the Muslims, of whom he was understandably frightened, to take this action. It must also be said that enlisting held no personal appeal for him, as he had heard that the chance of him being attacked by white racist factions within the U.S. forces was considerable.
Ali’s later treatment of Joe Frazier, whom he gratuitously called an ‘Uncle Tom’ (causing Joe’s son, Marvis, to be ostracised at school) could, again, not be claimed to be the action of a particularly religious man. Frazier, a man from a deprived background, never forgave the comparatively middle class Ali for this insult.
Another gifted athlete, Jonathan Edwards, a man who still holds the world triple jump record he set more than 19 years ago, was a highly committed Christian who, at one stage in his career, steadfastly refused to compete on a Sunday.
He did subsequently relinquish this discipline and won the triple jump World Title in 1995 with two efforts that extended his own world record beyond the 18 metre barrier.
A silver medal followed at the following year’s Olympics. He then won gold at the 2000 Olympics shortly after which he was awarded the CBE. Further titles were captured at the 2001 world championships and the 2002 commonwealth games prior to his retirement in 2003.
In March this year Jonathan made a surprise statement revealing that he no longer believes in God. Giving up presenting Songs of Praise, he stated that he felt more settled and happier in himself since coming to terms with his feelings. Edwards, 47, now works as a BBC sports presenter and lives in Newcastle with his wife and two sons.
Ex-Argentina goalkeeper, Carlos Roa, who helped knock England out of the 1998 world cup on penalties, was a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church. He took a year out of football to study religion in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1999, before returning to action in Spain. He fell back on his religion to strengthen him when testicular cancer struck him some years later.
The Rev David Shepherd skippered and opened the batting for both Sussex and England in the 1950’s and is the only ordained Minister to play Test cricket. Refusing to play against South Africa in their 1960 tour, he was strongly anti-apartheid. He retired from cricket in 1963, was made Bishop of Woolwich in 1969 and Bishop of Liverpool in 1975.
Shepherd retired from those commitments in 1997 and was elevated to Life Peerage, sitting on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. He died on the eve of his 76th birthday in 2005