Monday, August 7, 2017

Usain Bolt: Catholic Athlete

At the conclusion of Sports and Spirituality, I ask my students to name an athlete they wished we had discussed, read about and studied in class. Their responses are interesting, creative and quite often—not surprising. One name that has popped up with some regularity is Usain Bolt. I am almost embarrassed to admit that he was absent from the curriculum, and not because he holds world records in the 100 and 200 meters, with eight Olympic golds to his name. Or that he has "become a living legend in a track event that is known for creating superstars." No, I should have been teaching about Bolt all these years because as the article in America magazine states: "Usain Bolt is the Greatest Catholic Athlete in the World."
One might think Nick Ripatrazone's article caught my attention because it makes a bold claim. Greatest the world?! Again, no. Rather, I had no idea Bolt was and is Catholic.

To be fair, Bolt isn't unlike other "Christian" athletes. Their PDF: Public Displays of Faith can be off-putting. When the public sees an athlete point to the sky, bless himself—in this case with the sign of the Cross—and seconds later shake the alleged dust off shoulders or bust into his signature "bolt" posture it's hard to gauge sincerity about what is sacred and what's for show. Is it all a performance or do these athletes hold a mindset that can move fluidly from one domain to the other? And how do we know? Should we?

When I first read Ripatrazone's piece, I wanted to cringe. When people hear that I teach and write about Sports and Spirituality, they make assumptions that class lectures and articles pertain to only to athletes who give it up to God. How can that be? There's so much more to what we study, pray over and pursue. I figured this article would only add fuel to the fire. I took a deep breath, calmed down and read more. Instead, I discovered that this tribute to Bolt—who ran his final race just two days ago—is actually the perfect way to begin my class.
Like Catholicism, it offers a "both/and" perspective. Bolt wears BOTH a Miraculous Medal AND he is open to interviews about his faith in God. The Jamaican sprinter BOTH remembers to pray after his race—regardless of the outcome AND he took the middle name of St. Leo. Raised in a Seventh Day Adventist Home, Bolt converted to Catholicism, Whereas many Protestant traditions are more dialectic, Catholic embraces the reality that faith can be practiced both on the track AND in the Church. We will miss both his incredible talent and his witness....and his Catholic spirituality.

Something we do study in Sports and Spirituality is why rituals are important in both faith and athletics. "God Moments" by Andy Otto offers some insight. He writes 
a recent study showed that those who engage in rituals find their experiences enhanced. Participants were asked to eat a chocolate bar, but those who engaged in a prescribed ritual of breaking the bar, unwrapping it, eating half, and then unwrapping and eating the other half reported that the chocolate tasted better than those who simply ate the chocolate without a ritual.
No one would deny that competition is a source of joy for Usain Bolt. To what degree might this arena where he has integrated rituals to express his faith and use his gifts enhance his experience? I would love to know....

I recommend reading the article for yourself for it's important to understand more about his identity as a sprinter. his humanity even as one of the greatest athletes of all time and what he offers us as the viewer. It's so beautiful, I'll include it here: the belief that we can achieve amazing things and transcend our everyday selves—or at least live through the transformation of others.

Thank you to my students in the past who made this request. Thank you to Usain Bolt for your performance in Sydney, Beijing and Rio. You will be missed in Tokyo, but not forgotten. No, you will be remembered and prayed for. Pray for us, your fans, too.

Photo Credits
Bolt in prayer

Bolt Bolt

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting. I was one of the people put off by the huge display of the sign of the cross. Now I have another perspective.