The Religious Roots of the Olympics | Sojourners

The Religious Roots of the Olympics

Ancient Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.
Ancient Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.

When the Summer Olympics opened in London, there was a version of a religious ritual in the Olympic oath, procession of athletes and lighting of the flame. This was no accident because the modern Olympics have religious roots, though they appear to have largely secular fruits.

I'm reminded of this fact because it was in London in 1908 that Anglican Bishop Ethelbert Talbot first said, "The most important thing in these Olympics is not so much winning as taking part" — a phrase that became part of the Olympic creed. He was following in the footsteps of the Rev. Henri Didon, a Catholic priest who gets credit for the official Olympic motto "citius, altius, fortius" (faster, higher, stronger).

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was educated by Jesuits. "The first essential characteristic of the Olympics, both ancient as well as modern, is to be a religion … above and outside the churches," he said. He was influenced by proponents of "muscular Christianity," who turned away from traditional Christian contempt for the body and used sports as a method of strengthening faith and morality.

Muscular Christianity became popular in Victorian England and spread to the U.S., where it shaped the programs of the YMCA and Boy Scouts of America, as well as church sports leagues. Although it declined in mainline Protestantism in the 20th century, it remained strong in evangelical organizations, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Promise Keepers. Today, muscular Christianity is alive and well in professional athletes such as Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.

Contrary to de Coubertin, I don't believe the Olympics should be a religion, but I also don't think athletic competition should be completely secular. Sports and religion belong together because health involves both body and soul.

At the London Olympics, some representatives of majority Muslim countries have complained that the Games are being held during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. They say this will put their athletes at a disadvantage.

They have a point. Christians would be perturbed if the Games were held during Holy Week, just as Jews would object if they were asked to compete on Yom Kippur. In London, Olympic organizers are making an effort to help Muslims cope by providing food at night (when Muslims break the daily Ramadan fast), and offering special evening snack packs for breaking the fast.

The Olympics should reconnect with their religious roots. Just look at the obese parishioners who praise God and then stuff themselves with doughnuts after worship. Reconnecting body and soul is one of the solutions to our nation's obesity epidemic.

Ancient Greeks are partially to blame. While they provided the inspiration for the modern Games, they also created a dualistic philosophy that included antagonism between the physical and spiritual. Christians embraced this approach for many years, until muscular Christianity came along and people began to reclaim the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created with a unity of flesh and spirit.

Now, a focus on physical fitness is a growing trend in U.S. houses of worship. A 2007 survey of more than 6,000 American congregations, conducted by the National Council of Churches and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, revealed that 70 percent of churches provide health care services to their communities. A prominent example is the Daniel Plan, initiated by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, which includes healthy eating, regular exercise, stress reduction, prayer and group support. Warren himself dropped 60 pounds last year.

I have run marathons and done 100-mile bike rides with members of my church, and I have discovered that training is good for the individuals and the Christian community. I am not alone. Across the country, congregations are adding fitness facilities, and sponsoring programs such as "Christian Yoga" and "Bod4God."

While some of this is a reflection of our weight-obsessed culture, it also reflects a positive development in religious thought. Religious people are finally taking the body seriously, and it's a needed change as Americans struggle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

As for the Olympics, perhaps the opening ceremonies should have had a celebration of religions as well as a parade of nations. Most of the world's great faiths honor both body and spirit, and encourage health and vitality. This would correct the error made by the ancient Greeks, and would pay tribute to the religious leaders who made the modern Olympics possible. It could even inspire a few religious people to get off the couch and into the gym.

Henry G. Brinton writes for USA Today. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, is author of The Welcoming Congregation.

Image: Ancient Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. Photo by Anastasios71/Shutterstock.

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