Church and sports find close harmony in Russia

As the FIFA World Cup is about to start in Russia and attract football aficionados from around the entire world, Regina Elsner (Center for East European and International Studies, Berlin) looks at the way the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is approaching sports from a position quite similar to that of the Russian state—as an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle (even though physical health is not a goal in itself) and as an expression of patriotism. In recent years, the ROC has developed its pastoral work among athletes and sportspeople, as evidenced by a religious service conducted by Patriarch Kirill for the Russian Olympic team upon their return to Moscow in February 2018. The team has its own Orthodox chaplain, since the church sees athletes as believers as well, writes Elsner in the journal Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (April–May).

Before the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, the ROC published a new edition of the book Christianity and Sports by Deacon Filipp Ponomarev. In December 2015, a Patriarchal Commission on sports and related topics was constituted. The World Cup offers a new opportunity for the church to express its views on sports, including their having a clear educational value for young people. Across Russian Orthodox dioceses, sports are seen as a way to interact with youth, but also to prevent addictions or to rehabilitate addicts. According to Elsner, the church also sees some missionary potential in sports events, at least as an opportunity to acquaint foreign visitors with Russian Orthodox culture. There are also those among Orthodox Christians in Russia who look at sports with suspicion as worship of one’s body and pagan enjoyment incompatible with Christianity. But church officials distance themselves from such attitudes and prefer to emphasize the balance between physical and spiritual health. The emphasis on sports as a contribution to the strengthening of national consciousness has been evident in talks by the Patriarch and other leading ROC figures, even more so at a time when accusations by international sports organizations regarding doping and corruption among Russian athletes have increased but are often seen as lies or foreign pressure. The church also shows eagerness to promote specifically Russian forms of sports.

(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Institut G2W, Birmensdorferstrasse 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland –