by Mark West
Sport ministry uses sport as a vehicle to get more people involved, build relationships and reach out with the gospel. Our ministry with sports in Lesotho developed through a basic need of a more practical nature in sports administration.
James encourages us to share our faith in a practical manner and cites the example of a brother or a sister being without clothes or food. James goes on to say, ‘If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’ (Jas 2:15-16). In our context in Lesotho, it would be like saying to athletes, ‘God bless you and give you success in your sport’, knowing full well that they do not have the necessary support systems in place to achieve their goals. And so the Lord opened the door for us to share His love through sports administration.
I first got into sports administration while I was a primary school teacher in the early 2000s. One of my students was a keen cyclist and my wife, Malichaba, and I decided to help him with a brand new racing bike. He went on to compete in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. One thing led to another and I found myself as Secretary General to the Lesotho Cycling Federation. 1 Corinthians 12:10 speaks about the gift of interpretation and I somehow managed to take minutes in English for meetings that were conducted entirely in Sesotho. Sports administration brings management, governance and planning into sport. In Lesotho, sport is not an industry and most administrators are ill-equipped. Few sport organisations have the capacity to plan or budget and it is the athletes that end up suffering.
Lineo, one of our track athletes at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, entered the 10,000m race and started off very well. However, she was later lapped by the leaders. At the end of the race, the Australian competitors stayed at the finish line to welcome her home; the scene made headlines in the Australian media. The sad reality is that Lineo’s life is a far cry from the well-supported careers of these other athletes. She is a single mother who works six days a week in a textile factory to put food on the table for her daughter. Where would she possibly find the time and energy to compete at the same level?
The sad reality is that Lineo’s life is a far cry from the well-supported careers of these other athletes.
Building a Team
My ministry to athletes developed through cycling. We managed to build the team from nothing to a high level that even eclipsed Great Britain in the mountain bike rankings for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Along the way, we have organised national and continental championships and I have managed teams to the World Championships, and Olympic and Commonwealth Games. It has been a rollercoaster ride and a lot of lessons have been learned along the way.But I still felt a burden to have a closer relationship with the athletes themselves.
In 2014, I established a small team of exceptionally talented cyclists and am now helping them develop to their full potential. We travel a lot and have become quite successful. As the riders are able to compete at a higher level, they earn a little money to feed themselves and their families, making a huge difference to their lives. In addition, the exposure that they get from travelling and competing in different countries has broadened their horizons and developed self-confidence. Riders not only become better athletes, but more creative and productive people in everyday life, enabling them to better plan for future success.
Spending so much time with this small group of cyclists gives me a great opportunity to share my faith with them. We often encourage each other with biblical advice and pray together, particularly at the big races when they feel outside their comfort zones. Being a coach and a mentor is not just about what you say, but also how you live. They know how important my faith in Christ is to me and how I try to live out godly principles in every area of my life. My prayer is that my life will also lead them to a deeper relationship with Christ.
It is not always easy to create opportunities to directly share one’s faith, but while preparing for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, the Lord led me to write a four-week devotional aimed specifically at athletes, called Power from Above. It is amazing how many Bible passages use physical exercise and sport as an illustration and how athletes can relate so well to these verses. During the whole games period, we met together as a team every evening for Bible reading and prayer, using this booklet as a guide.
Many concepts can easily be transferred from the sports psyche to spiritual development. Athletes know what it means to be disciplined, self-controlled and determined in their training and it is easy to relate this to their spiritual lives. I like to compare training principles to practical methods to develop spiritually. Athletes know that to improve physically they need specific exercises to develop ‘components of fitness’, such as agility, balance, body composition, coordination, endurance, flexibility, power, reaction time, speed and strength. We bring in the attributes from Colossians 3:12-17 and call them the ‘components of character’: ‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’, ‘Bear with each other and forgive one another’, ‘over all these virtues put on love’, ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts’ and ‘be thankful’. We encourage athletes, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to work through these components one by one in order to develop Christian character.
Athletes know what it means to be disciplined, self-controlled and determined in their training and it is easy to relate this to their spiritual lives.
The success in cycling has opened doors to work with other sports. Although professional sports have become big business in the rest of the world, in Lesotho most of the hard work is done by dedicated volunteers. That is how I became involved and what drew me to work with the Lesotho National Olympic Committee. We are working on projects to support Lesotho’s most promising athletes. This puts me in close contact with quite a number of athletes and coaches, and my hope is to become a spiritual mentor to these young, aspiring sportsmen and women. It is great to see how many of the top athletes have a deep faith in Christ and a real desire to give Him all the glory through their sport. As athletes, they have busy training schedules and travel fairly often, so daily reading guides and regular contact through social media is a great way to disciple them and help them grow spiritually.
The work with Lesotho Olympics also gives me an opportunity to be a light in the world of sports administration. Over recent years, scandals at the world governing bodies of Football (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have revealed how autocratic leaders have corruptly used smaller nations to keep themselves in power. The temptation to accept a bribe in return for a vote is a difficult choice for someone living just above the poverty line. There are temptations to falsify reports, inflate budgets and take unnecessary trips for per diem allowances.
Thankfully, the Lesotho Olympic office is blessed with hard-working, conscientious people who are determined to do their best for the development of sport. We start each morning with prayer and a devotion from the Bible and I believe that this helps us to set the tone for the day. My prayer is that such moments together as staff will help to deepen our faith in Christ and that the way I speak and live will continue to be a godly example (1 Tim. 4:12). We are helping other organisations to build their administration capacity and are hopeful that this will make a difference to athletes.
Lerato is one of our young upcoming athletes. She finished just outside the medals with fourth place in the triple-jump at the Commonwealth Games and has a bright future ahead of her. Unfortunately, she recently lost her father and was devastated. At that time, she found great comfort through the Power from Above Bible readings and relates that the strength she found in God empowered her to win a bronze medal at the African Championships. She continues to read her Bible daily.
In light of James 2, it is interesting to note how mission has changed over the generations. The world has changed and we, as Christians, need to earn respect for our message to be received. It is not enough to donate large amounts of money to projects; people need to see our faith in action to get a glimpse of the love of God and turn to Him. ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Mt. 5:16).