By John Longhurst for Winnipeg Free Press on 20 Feb 2010
A priestess holds an olive-tree branch as she participates in a ceremony honouring Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek gods, at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. So far, God and religion haven’t come up in the media coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, unless you count jokes about praying for snow.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any religious input into these Games. Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral (Anglican) is staying open 12 hours each day of the Olympics as a sanctuary for visitors.
In a letter to the Vancouver Sun, Rev. Peter Elliott, the dean and rector of the cathedral, wrote that “our intention is to be a sanctuary for people to offer prayer for the peace of the world.”
At the same time, a coalition of 65 religious organizations and denominations, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists and Baptists, are running More Than Gold, an effort “to extend the radical hospitality of Christ” during the Games.
In addition to providing hospitality and programs at 25 different places in Metro Vancouver, the group is also supporting social justice initiatives in the city such as the memorial march for murdered and missing women and raising money for homeless people.
Some Vancouverites are uncomfortable with this mixing of religion and the Olympics. But the two have long been entwined, going right back to the origin of the Games themselves.
Back then, “there was no such thing as secular athletics,” says David Gilman Romano, director of Greek Archaeological Projects at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
His museum’s website notes that the ancient Games were part of a religious festival in honour of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. The name of the Games themselves comes from Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and home to those same deities.
In the ancient Games, athletes weren’t just trying to see who was fastest, strongest or best, they also wanted to offer their athletic prowess to the gods.
If religion was part of the ancient Games, it was also the reason for their demise. In AD 393, the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the Games, along with other Greek and Roman festivals, for being too pagan, violent and gory. His successor, Theodosius II, went a step further in 426, ordering his army to demolish Olympia’s stadium.
It would be 1,500 years later before Baron Pierre de Coubertin would found the modern Olympics. His vision for the Games was infused with a religious sensibility.
In his memoirs, de Coubertin wrote that sports were “a religion with its church, dogmas, service… but above all, a religious feeling.” Two years before his death, in a 1935 radio address, he asserted that “the first essential characteristic of ancient and of modern Olympism alike is that of being a religion.”
De Coubertin didn’t set out to create a new religion in the traditional sense. But he understood the power of religious rituals, symbols, rites and ceremonies, and incorporated them into the modern Olympic movement. He even included a hymn. In its original version, the first verse is a paean to the “immortal spirit of antiquity, father of the true, beautiful and good.” It goes on to plead for this spirit to “descend, appear, shed over us thy light… which has first witnessed thy unperishable flame.”
You don’t hear much about those religious roots anymore, and religion doesn’t crop up in the Olympics very often. One occasion when it did was at the Paris Games in 1924, when English sprinter Eric Liddell famously refused to compete in the 100-metre race — his best event — because it was held on a Sunday. His decision, and his subsequent gold-medal victory in the 400 metres, became the subject of the movie Chariots Of Fire, which is considered by many to be one of the best sports movies of all time.
Today, the Olympics are decidedly secular. No longer do athletes compete for the gods, but for their countries and for the goal of promoting peace across nations and cultures.
And yet, considering how religious tensions fuel some of the world’s conflicts, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if Olympic organizers looked for ways to promote understanding between religions, too.