The Sports and Christianity Bulletin

Essays on issues and topics in Christianity and Sports.

Religion, Hope and the Sports Enhancement Debate

by Dr. Tracy Trothen1

I have recently published a book with Mercer University Press on the human enhancement question in sport. This book has been in the works for some time. It took me a while before I considered pulling together my interests in human enhancement technologies and how sport functions religiously. Of course, once I started down that path it seemed like an obvious intersection.

Should high-tech prosthetic limbs be permissible in elite sports competitions? Why are caffeine and altitude tents usually acceptable while some cold medications are not? What will happen as we engineer new potentially enhancing options such as genetic modification technologies that increase muscle strength or aerobic capacity? The recent emergence of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology is making these possibilities quite real. The ethics debate about the use of enhancements in elite sport has become more and more complicated. Yet we are not asking a key question: what does sports’ religious dimension have to do with this debate?

So I look at one very compelling spiritual feature of sport: hope. Hope is a strong feature of sport. As fans we hope fervently for our team’s success even if they haven’t won since 1967 (yes… I confess I’m a diehard Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan).

How will hope in sport potentially be affected by techno-science? And how might a valuing of sport’s spiritual dimension, and particularly hope, reshape the sport enhancement debate? For example, how might flow states be affected? Although we know the optimal conditions for flow, we still cannot control if someone will experience a flow state. Shocking and inspiring athletic performances have been known to occur when an athlete experiences herself in flow. Potentially, flow states could be enhanced, or it could be decided that their unpredictable affects are undesirable and therefore better to be avoided. Or what if we develop the technology to improve a baseball batter’s visual acuity, hand-eye coordination and muscle strength to the point where most pro baseball players can easily hit home-runs? How might this affect not only the nature of the sport but the inspiration fans draw from it?

My one clear conclusion is that sport’s spiritual dimension includes hope, and the locations of hope in sport are morally relevant to the sport enhancement discussion. But the real question is, did I arrive at the right book title: Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate.

  1. TRACY J. TROTHEN is Associate Professor at the School of Religion, Queen’s University, a certified Specialist and Teaching Supervisor (Canadian Association of Spiritual Care), and Registered Psychotherapist (CRPO). She is the author of numerous publications including Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate.‬ She has co-edited two recent anthologies: Religion and Sexuality: Diversity and the Limits of Tolerance with Young and Shipley (UBC Press, 2015), and Religion and Transhumanism: The Unknown Future of Human Enhancement with Calvin Mercer (Praeger, 2015), and is at work on another with Mercer: Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values, and Morality.