May 30, 1997 Features & Images » Feature Story

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The Wide World of Religion Whistlerites worship at the Temple Of Sport By Stephen Vogler The people who named Whistler's first church The Skier's Chapel may have been on to something that they themselves were not even aware of. The church was built in 1969 at the base of the old Whistler gondola using the same A-frame construction style as most ski cabins of the day. It also happened to be the first inter-denominational church in Canada. But it was the name, with its suggested link between sports and religion, that foretold an interesting phenomenon about the Whistler community. For although organized religion certainly has its followers in Whistler, I can't help noticing that the biggest congregations in town are occurring on the ski slopes, at bike races, hockey games and any other places where sports are practised. Now you might be thinking that comparing religion with recreation is like lumping apples together with oranges. The former is concerned with the worship of God, the latter with fun and exercise. But before both religious and sports enthusiasts alike dismiss the idea completely, let me describe this scene to you: You're carving turns down a steep powder chute while the morning sun is burning away last night's storm clouds. You're completely focused on your task, legs working, heart and lungs pumping, eyes looking ahead. You turn up onto a small rock outcropping and decide to take some air. When you land, the snow is deeper than you expected and it grabs at your feet and catapults you forward. As your body flies horizontally, your pupils open as wide as your irises and time suddenly stands still. You notice that the sun, which has burned through the remaining cloud, is refracting off the last falling snow flakes; you notice that the duct tape on the third finger of your right glove is peeling back slightly. Your senses are open to the world, and your mind, working in concert with every muscle in your body, knows instantly that tucking your head and rolling is the best way to proceed. Whether you land on your feet and ski to the bottom, or end up gathering ski equipment from the hillside, you're left feeling euphoric and rejuvenated. You've experienced a sense of connection with the universal, a moment of pure being, of seeing with perfect clarity. This feeling of connection with something universal, something larger than ourselves, is also what organized religions offer us. The various paths toward reaching this state may be altogether different, but the end result is strikingly similar. Many religions use prayer, rituals or fasting to achieve a state of ecstasy or communion with God. More outlandish practices include the rapid spinning around of Sufi Whirling Dervishes or the babbling of Baptists speaking in tongues. Those who practise sports have their own ways of reaching that ecstatic state. Long distance runners, bike racers, triathletes or anyone who puts their body through rigorous trials of endurance, eventually reach a transformed state of consciousness. Intense exercise causes the pituitary gland to release endorphins, natural opiates far stronger than morphine, which leave the endurance athlete feeling euphoric at the same time as exhausted. But there are other similarities between sports and religion besides consciousness altering chemicals in the body. Serious athletes who undertake a strict training program have much in common with Hindu worshippers following the Path of Renunciation. In The Religions of Man, Huston Smith writes: "religious renunciation is on a continuum with that of the athlete in training who turns his back upon every indulgence that would deflect from his prize." The idea in both cases is that sacrifices are necessary in the present so that a greater goal can eventually be reached. Huston says, "it is the only evidence that can be given of life's confidence in the existence of values beyond those it is experiencing at the moment." Like the Hindu worshipper, the training athlete is subscribing to a set of values that go beyond his immediate needs. The rising popularity of extreme endurance races, like last year's Whistler Eco-Challenge, bring other parallels between religion and sports to mind. People watching the event can't help but wonder why anybody would want to ski, hike, climb, traverse and ride horseback for 500 kilometres through rugged coastal terrain. Yet the glazed and euphoric looks in the eyes of the participants suggest it is the most rewarding experience of their lives. Body chemicals like adrenaline and endorphins certainly play a part in their euphoria, but I think there is a deeper impulse driving them to undertake such enormous challenges. St. Francis of Assisi, and other ascetics of the early Christian church, also travelled the countryside under self-imposed conditions of depravity. The garb in those days was a hair suit and an alms bowl, rather than Nikes and GoreTex, but the result, to commune with nature and humble one's self before God (or some great universal force), is virtually the same. For the person who pushes a pencil all day long in an office tower without a hint of risk in their life, traversing the countryside under inclement conditions is certainly one way of deepening the meaning of life; a kind of self-imposed penitence in their path to redemption. Perhaps the ice axe is modern man's new cross to bear, the mountain peak his altar. Now if I haven't yet convinced the doubters among you of the connection between sports and religion, let me draw on an example from our own community. I've already mentioned the large congregations of mountain bikers, skiers, golfers, etc. in town, but I haven't talked yet of the religious leaders in our sporting community. Every religion has its high priests and even prophets and those who practise sports are no different. The stars of professional sport are certainly the divine prophets of our sports-crazed town. Witness the hubbub that surrounds the arrival of World Cup skiers, National Hockey League players or the world's best mountain bike racers. In a town based fundamentally around skiing, World Cup downhillers are still at the pinnacle of this elite group. It's not surprising, therefore, that Rob Boyd's retirement party last month was one of the best attended events in recent Whistler history (and an excellent shaker to boot!). The retirement of a poet, politician or plumber simply wouldn't generate the same kind of interest. As in any religion, the prophets of sport give the rest of the flock something to aspire towards. They show the proper path to fulfilment. But don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting for a minute that Whistlerites are mere armchair athletes. Above all else they are participants. They get out there and excel at the sports they choose; and they choose almost every sport imaginable. When windsurfers first hit the market, Whistlerites got out on the lake and mastered the technique before most city folk had even heard of them. When short boards were developed, they headed for Squamish, Oregon and Maui to go faster and jump higher. The same is true of in-line skating, skate boarding, snow boarding and kayaking, to name a few other sports. Whistlerites can masterfully turn short skis, long skis, skinny and fat skis and even parabolic skis. If nothing else, we have a reputation to keep up in our sports-oriented town. So what about those large congregations of sports enthusiasts we constantly see around town? Have they replaced the need for churches, mosques, synagogues and temples where religions have traditionally been practised? I don't think so. But I would say that sports now fill some of the same needs in our lives that organized religions once did. The importance religion has played throughout human history, and the importance sports now play in our lives, leads me to believe that our sports might be transforming into some new kind of religion. If that's the case, Whistler will undoubtedly become a place of great importance. We already have the prophets, the followers and the holy lands. I say, make way for the new Jerusalem!

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