Separation of Church and Triathlon

On June 15, 2014, I participated in the 9th annual Heartland Triathlon in Sebring, Florida, a race which requires swimming for a quarter of a mile, biking for 14 miles, and running a 5K. Prior to the swim start, the announcer led an invocation—and asked that we bow our heads. A local minister took the microphone and thanked Jesus for the favorable weather and the fact that, because of his grace, we were fit and capable of engaging in the forthcoming exertions. The minister went on and on for a spell, finishing by asking him to keep us safe in the water, on the bike and during the run.

Um, excuse me?

I found the delay of the race and the invocation babble an intrusion on my pre-race state on mind. I found the content of the invocation so irrational as to be ludicrous. It would have been comedic if not for the fact that it was also seriously unwelcomed, symptomatic of “in-your-face-Christianity” and therefore off-putting.

I wondered if those standing at the water’s edge with heads bowed really believed that their sky god sent the nice weather to Sebring so a bunch of fitness enthusiasts could enjoy their harmless pastime. What a waste of god-power, if there were such a thing. It would be far more useful for the sky god to ensure that nobody drowned, crashed or passed out during a segment of the race.

Why were we all subjected to this Christian rite? Should I protest immediately? Make a scene? Demand equal time for a secular perspective then and there? Should I make the case for a constitutional separation of church and triathlon? I concluded that I would not say anything at that moment to avoid creating a controversy and detracting from what should’ve been the main focus all along—the race itself.

And without any god’s help, I finished the triathlon in one hour, fifteen minutes, and forty-three seconds, and placed 100th (out of 397) overall. And I’m 76 years old.

But the following day, I wrote a letter to the race director explaining that the invocation was inappropriate. I continued:

There surely must have been other non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, and others, as well as secularists) who gathered on the beach for the race, not expecting to be part of a Christian prayer. Many people would not agree with the minister who credited Jesus for the good weather, for example. Maybe nature is such that the sun shines and the temperatures are cool on some mornings and it rains and the temperatures are high on other mornings, without any role played by Jesus.

Anyone who wants Jesus or other deity to look after them is free to ask their favorite supernatural   power for favors at any time before or during a race—privately. It’s simply rude, inconsiderate and even a form of majority bullying to subject every athlete in a public, secular competition to be part a Christian prayer ritual.

Of course this practice would be fine if you billed your event a Christian triathlon—the  Heartland Christian Triathlon by Christians for Christians. That, of course, is not what I expected or signed up for.

A few days later, I was informed by the race official that the invocation was a mistake, a misguided effort to please the major race sponsor—namely, an Adventist hospital—and would not happen next time. I’ll be at the race next year to hold them to it.

Secularists can have a positive effect. We can, on many occasions, mitigate the impositions large and small of aggressive religionists on the public life of all citizens. Good luck to all in doing what you can, little by little and bit by bit, to promote freedom from religion.