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Like a billion other viewers, I caught some of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games earlier this week. It was a marvel of planning and choreography. The visual highlight in a breathtaking spectacle was the moment when the two-hundred and four burning petals, lit from seven torches, rose to form a single, monumental cauldron at the center of the Olympic Stadium.

Peter J. Leithart Awesome as the ceremony was, I watched with a renewed and growing sense that the Olympics is not about sports. My complaint isn’t about NBC’s inevitably breathless dramatization, nor about the professionalization of amateur sports, nor about the bizarre potpourri of cultural figures, gestures, and icons. Where else could you find Paul McCartney, the Queen of England, David Beckham, Kenneth Branagh, Mohammed Ali, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Arctic Monkeys (!?), the Rowans Atkinson and Williams sharing a stage? My disquiet is about the Olympic Games themselves.

The Greek Olympiad was the most important panhellenic festival and was a thoroughly religious event. Pindar sang of the heavenly light that shone on victors, and Pausanius compared the wonders of Olympic contests to the mysteries of Eleusis. Olympia and Eleusis were places where the abyss between gods and men might briefly be crossed. In the Eleusian mysteries, gods tasted mortality; at Olympia, skilled athletes had a brush with immortality.

The modern Olympics is the most wildly successful product of the classical revival in Romantic and post-Romantic culture. Romantic classicism was not antiquarian but aimed at cultural renewal, and many Romantics favored Greek culture because it provided an ancient and evocative alternative to what they saw as moribund Christianity. As David Gress has remarked, for Goethe, classicism was an “ersatz religion” that was attractive precisely because it was not Christianity. The same could be said for Nietzsche.

The religious underpinnings of the Olympic revival were explicit in the voluminous writings of the French educator, historian, and sociologist, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Though he exaggerated his role as “father” of the modern Olympics, Coubertin was the chief prophet of the ideology of “Olympism.” 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.”

Olympism was high church. Coubertin once said that without the panoply of symbol and spectacle, the Olympics would be another world championship. The Games, like ancient rituals, had to be “celebrated in a rhythm of astronomical rigidity” with a “quarterly celebration of human springtime in honor of the constant renewal of mankind.” Coubertin created symbols and ceremonies to embody the Olympic faith. Coubertin knew that Greek athletes offered sacrifices to Zeus, but he maintained that the main religious act of ancient athletes was “an oath of honour and disinterest.” By taking the Olympic oath, modern competitors proved their “virginity” and qualified themselves to enter the “holy of holies” of the arena. Adhering to the gentlemanly code of gracious victory and proud defeat, the athlete was “purified by the profession and practice of such virtues.”

Like the original Olympiad, the modern Olympics gathered peoples in gamely competition, which served as an incubator of international peace. Olympic competition would sublimate war, transforming international hostility into “amicable” and “legal” rivalry. Internationalism was not, Coubertin insisted, at the expense of patriotic sentiment. Nations could fly their flags, cheer their national heroes, take pride in medals won. “Patriotism without nationalism” was his ideal, and he designed the Olympic flag to represent his double political aim: The rings symbolized “the five inhabited continents united by Olympism,” but the colors of the rings were the colors of the national flags of participating nations.

Team sports were a problem for Coubertin, since ancient Greek contests didn’t include any. “Teamwork” as an athletic value is largely an inheritance of nineteenth-century Christianity, and no doubt the muscular Christians were right to think that certain Christian virtues can be cultivated on the field of play. For all his classicism, Coubertin’s Olympics could not wriggle free of Christendom.

After nearly 1500 years, the ancient Olympics faded in the late-fourth century when Theodosius I closed the temple of Zeus at Olympia and prohibited sacrifice “to senseless images.” Stripped of temple and sacrifice, the Olympics were no longer the Olympics. One of the temples of Olympia was remodeled into a church, and, as M.I. Finley wrote, “it is unthinkable that the games were permitted to coexist with a Christian community and Christian worship.”

The modern Olympics accomplishes the unthinkable, setting up an Olympic Stadium and performing extravagant rites of Olympism in the shadow of Westminster and St. Paul’s, under the benign gaze of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And the Olympics are the tip of a multi-billion dollar iceberg whose religious values are no less powerful for being submerged. Our heroes of sacrifice are sports heroes. Our calendars are marked by athletic holy days (Super Bowl Sunday), seasons (March Madness), and bi-annual cycles (Olympics). We identify ourselves by our tribal clothing, our totem mascot, our war paint, and our chants around the field of play. The passions of an age with neither patriotism nor piety can still be roused by a close game.

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.

Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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