Winning the Race?

Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate

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Tracy Trothen
Sports and Religion Series
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholarship in the area of religion and sport generally falls into one of two categories. One category is the intersection of sport with institutional religion. For example, how do institutional religions interact with sport? Is sport complementary to institutional religions or in conflict with them? Or both? Or neither? The second category is to think about sport as a kind of religion, or as an expression of human religious sentiments and behaviors. For example, is the fan’s devotion to the team a kind of religious behavior? Are teams like totemic symbols that unite fans into a religious community? Is the athlete engaged in a type of spiritual practice?

One of the many merits of Tracy Trothen’s new book, Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate, is that she moves easily through and between these two categories of questions and concerns. She also pushes the conversation about sport and religion into a new area—the debate about the many “enhancement” opportunities that athletes might pursue, and how such enhancements may affect our sports and how we think about them.

Trothen identifies two important gaps in the literature on religion and sport as it pertains to the enhancement debate. She writes that “participation in sports, by definition, usually improved one’s physical condition, and technology and science are being used to improve these physical improvements even further. Neither the implications of this doubling effect on the spiritual dimension of sport, nor the relevance of this spiritual dimension to the shaping of the sport enhancement debate, have been considered in any depth. These two issues are the focus of this book” (xii). She then describes her task as explaining “how elite sports function as a religion; the spiritual quality of hope in sport; how techno-science might affect and be affecting hope in sport; and, lastly, how an understanding of elite sports as a secular religion centered on hope might reshape the sport enhancement debate” (1).

The early chapters provide readers with excellent introductions to the complex and perplexing issues related to the sport enhancement debate. Even the most casual fan is familiar with doping scandals; for example, Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, and many others. But Trothen takes us more deeply into questions about what constitutes an enhancement—doping, of course, but also gene therapy, artificial limbs, surgery, vitamin regimens, etc.—and how our evaluation of enhancements are bound up with our understanding of sport and religion.

It is in the last three chapters that Trothen pulls together the preceding material and makes the most significant contribution to the study of religion and sport. The key concept is hope. While hope clearly has theological roots (and Trothen identifies those), it also is integral to understanding the meaning and power of sport. Trothen writes: “In the final analysis, it is perhaps the mystery and the continuity in sport that lie at the root of hope. We don’t know if our team will win or lose. We don’t know when to expect the next perfect athletic moment. We don’t know all the ingredients that make for a stunning performance. We don’t know how morally upright our sports stars are. We see reason to hope and we see possibilities through witnessing the unexpected. We know there will be future possibilities” (130). And it is in those “future possibilities”—whether in the next moments as the race begins or in the next season when that elusive championship might finally be won—that hope resides. And it is that hope that draws us to our games and competitions, and provides powerfully meaningful experiences for athletes and fans alike.

By understanding hope as part of the spiritual or religious dimension of sport, Trothen argues that we will see the enhancement debate in a new light. Instead of fixating on arguments about the autonomy of athletes or on ensuring competitive fairness, we will analyze enhancement techniques based on how they may impact the internal goods of sport—the hope, meaning, and spirituality that are at its core. As Trothen insists, “The most important internal good of sport is, I submit, its spiritual and religious dimension. Most particularly, this internal good is the capacity of sport to inspire hope and, as part of hope, a sense of meaning. It is hope that spurs us on to overcome obstacles” (159). In this sense, to rely upon enhancement techniques to overcome obstacles is to eliminate the human dimension of sport, and thus to rob it of its hope and meaning. And, in the end, it is that hope and meaning, that achievement of excellence and even perfection in the face of obstacles, that makes for a happy life. As Trothen concludes: “The locations of hope in sport suggest that what humans long for is not primarily about becoming faster, stronger, or higher than what our humanness permits, but it is more the overcoming of difficult challenges and living into our potential that enhances happiness” (189).

In sum, Trothen has provided us with a rich and powerful book that moves us forward in our reflection about religion and sport and opens up some very critical perspectives in our thinking about the sport enhancement debates.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Erin Bain-Selbo is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tracy J. Trothen is associate professor of Theology and Ethics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Trothen holds a ThD degree from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto.



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