I’ve just been looking at photographs of Emma Raducanu again, this time focusing on her upper chest. She usually wears a pendant cross, which suggests that she is a Christian. Yes I know that some people wear crosses for fashion reasons, but I don’t think she’s in that camp. Maybe it’s more a sign of cultural than religious allegiance, maybe a treasured gift from a grandparent? Or maybe a sign of solidarity with China’s persecuted Christians.
To what extent is it legitimate to inquire into this? The orthodoxy is, not at all, you meddling creep. It’s her business, and it’s utterly irrelevant to her tennis success. But it is not too out-of-order to ponder the symbols that people in the public eye choose to wear.
If she wore a rainbow ribbon, for example, you can bet that plenty of commentators would be speculating on its meaning. Such speculation would not seem intrusive, for it would be assumed that her wearing of this sign was intentional, an invitation to speculate.
Similarly, If her pendant was an image of a saxophone, say, or a cat, or a Chinese character, you can bet that people would link it to her wider life. And it is hardly illegitimate to comment on her decision to wear a Chanel dress and Tiffany earrings to the Met Gala. But when it comes to religious signs, an awkward silence descends. Our culture would prefer that no such awkward symbols or images existed.
Especially on sports stars. Brazilian footballer Christian Neymar has just signed a contract with PSG that reportedly commits him to certain behavioural standards. It is also said to bar him from engaging in ‘religious or political propaganda’.
He is a devout evangelical, who was once pictured in a headband with the legend ‘100% Jesus’. It is not clear whether he will still be allowed to wear a pendant cross, and to cross himself before the game (if that is his thing). But it seems unlikely he will be allowed to speak to the press about his religious beliefs.
I think it’s a bit dodgy to curtail a player’s freedom in this way. It speaks of a desire to airbrush religion from contemporary life. Some will say that he should keep his religion to himself: his public function is to play football. But who is to say that sport is meant to be a cleanly secular space? Should politics and entertainment also be kept ’neutral’?
So, some advice for Emma. Say what you want about your faith or lack of it. And be wary of the idea that the public realm is meant to be a neutral secular space. If you feel like thanking God for your good fortune, screw your sponsor and just do it.