Given our current sermon series, and the applications we have made, I cannot pass up the opportunity to point you to this rumination on the religious underpinnings of the Olympic Games. In "Salvation by Sport," Peter Leithart writes,
The modern Olympics is the most wildly successful product of the classical revival in Romantic and post-Romantic culture....The religious underpinnings of the Olympic revival were explicit in the voluminous writings of the French educator, historian, and sociologist, Baron Pierre de Coubertin....For Coubertin, the Olympics cultivated the ancient religio athletae for the modern world. Sports foster physical culture as well as an ethos of "nobility of thinking and purity of morals." Coubertin wrote in his memoirs, "For me, sport is a religion with church, dogma, cult . . . but especially with religious feeling."
It is not that sports are wrong; far from it. But the Olympics are not merely people playing and having a good time of challenging competition. Thus Leithart says,
Working out Christianity’s relation to sports raises tricky ethical and pastoral questions. But we can’t hope to untangle those issues without starting from the baseline recognition that Olympism was created to be, and remains, one of the church’s most formidable rivals.
There are transcendent ideals in play here, just as in the Olympics of old. Some sources I have read recently seem to corroborate Leithart's evaluation.
Mark Golden, in his careful study Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, says, "Greek religion was essentially a matter of acts – rituals such as processions, sacrifices, feasts – not of creeds or dogmas. It might be argued that festivals, which brought together most of the acts characterizing Greek religion, were its most important public manifestation. By this token, athletic and equestrian competition, allied as it was with festival celebration, was intrinsically religious" (14-15).
The ancient athlete was considered the embodiment of what was good, beautiful, and excellent. Nigel Spivey notes "the pervasive Classical Greek belief that beauty was invested with morality; that to look good was also necessarily to be good....According to this equation, what you saw was what you got" (The Ancient Olympics: A History, 57). This fit precisely with the ideology behind competing nude. As David Potter says, "looking good in the buff was a sign that one possessed what it took to be a contender. It also marked the athlete as someone special and, to survive the events in which he competed, special was what he needed to be" (The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, 78).
By training and overcoming in competition, the athlete achieved arete - excellence, virtue. In his superb study Ancient Greek Athletics, Stephen Miller observes that we easily think this way today. He opens his chapter on "Arete" with these words: "We want our athletes to be better than they are. We want to follow their exploits and rejoice when they win or break records. They are an extension of ourselves and an unrelinquished claim on our youth, an eternal source of memories of the days when we could run fast and jump far, when our muscles stretched and grew. We look at them and see ourselves as we would want to be seen, and sometimes we fool ourselves that we might have been as good at games as they. They represent an undying hope that we have a share in immortality, and they allow us to step outside ourselves from time to time so that we can return refreshed and revived to our everyday lives" (235). For a contemporary example of this undying hope, just note how ESPN advertises its "Body Issue": "It's okay to stare. That's what The Body Issue is here for. Each year, we stop to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who've pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god. To ... well, gawk. So go ahead; join us."
This arete was the path to a pagan kind of immortality. Glory would be given to the victor in statue and song. Potter says, "Statues at this time and place do not represent the common man, or the ideal of the average. They are intended to reify the ideal of the extraordinary that Pindar also commemorates. But both statues and victory songs considerably understate the role of the great athlete in contemporary imagination. Indeed, even Great King Darius of Persia knew that athletes had to be very special in the world of his Greek subjects….Fans of men like Theogenes and Euthymus imagined that they had extraordinary qualities….The equation between divinities and athletes was well established by the time the games of 476 opened, even if Theogenes hadn’t started telling people that Hercules was really his father…" (93-5). William Blake Tyrrell says, "To have his name resound upon the ears of men born long after his death - that is the motivation that drives more than the Homeric warrior; that is the ideal sought by every Greek" (The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture, 4).
I don't think it is an accident that as Christian ideals gradually influenced Western civilization, athletics were put back in their proper place - a grateful enjoyment of a good gift from God, but with no transcendent pretentions (1 Tim 4:7-8). I also don't think it is an accident that as our society has embraced pagan humanism, sports systems have started to show an uncanny resemblance to Olympia, and sports stars to the offspring of Zeus.
I hope that Christians will think carefully and act wisely in our current cultural moment, neither rejecting God's good gifts nor participating in idolatry. Frankly, I suspect that we are deep into the latter without realizing it. 1 Corinthians 8-10 has a lot to say to inform us. I don't know all the answers to this problem. As Leithart said, there are tricky ethical issues here. Nevertheless, I plead with all believers who watch the Olympics to do so with their eyes open. Jesus is Lord, and our zeal for his kingdom ought to make the Olympics look like the child's play that it is.