A 600-foot footrace was the only athletic event at the first Olympics, a festival held in 776 B.C. and dedicated to Zeus, the chief Greek god. For the next 1000 years, Greeks gathered every four years in Olympia to honour Zeus through sports, sacrifices and hymns. The five-day festival brought the Greek world together in devotion to one deity.
Athletes at the ancient Olympics believed their training honoured the gods, and victory was a sign of favour from a deity. As contests like wrestling, boxing, and horse racing were added to the Olympic roster, they supplemented devotional sacrifices, hymns, and ceremonies.
The combination of Greek sport and worship led the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, to ban the Olympics in 393 A.D. However the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 after excavations at Olympia renewed public interest in the athletics and spectacle of the Olympics. And what began in ancient Greece as a festival to honour a single god, Zeus, has now become an almost Olympian task, as organisers of the games navigate dozens of sacred fasts, religious rituals and holy days.
With the diverse array of athletes and spectators descending on Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics, some observers say this could be the largest interfaith gathering on earth. And in developing the infrastructure of the Games, Olympic organisers took religion into account. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu representatives met several times to plan how the spiritual needs of the athletes would be met. They consulted on the creation of an inter-religious centre inside the Olympic Village, where athletes are able to pray and hold worship services as well as receive spiritual counselling. This year they are 24 officially-designated chaplains from the world’s five major religions. In the 2012 London Olympics accommodated religious athletes with 193 chaplains, a prayer room in every venue and a multi-faith centre in the Olympic Village.
Though not sectarian, the modern games began to take on their own quasi-religious rituals. Coubertin borrowed ceremonies, hymns, and rituals from the ancient festival to shape a transcendent “Olympism,” uniting all athletes. Some scholars today refer to his creation as a “civil religion.”
“The civil religion was not so much the worship or devotion to the state, as it is often now understood,” explained Joseph Price, a professor of religion at Whittier College in California who researches sport and religion. Devotion “was to the civitas, the human group that transcended a particular religion.”
Over the years, the International Olympic Committee and host states introduced “new” symbols to bolster Olympism, said Stephen Mosher, professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College in New York.
Still, the modern games have touches from the ancient past.
Gold medals since 1928 have been imprinted with the image of Nike, goddess of victory. And though the torch relay existed in antiquity, it was not part of the ancient Olympics. “It was ‘invented’ by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Games in an obvious attempt to connect the modern German state with the ancient Greek state,” Mosher said.
Today, the IOC and host countries must tread lightly to accommodate modern religious expression in an often-hostile political climate. Some situations present special challenges.
In 2008, Israeli President Shimon Peres received special housing accommodations at the Beijing opening ceremony so that he would not have to drive in a car on the Jewish Sabbath. However during the 2012 London Olympics Peres missed the opening, as the London Organising Committee refused to make special accommodations.
Modern religious athletes also struggle with religious devotion and the Olympic schedule. Devout Jews and Christians must choose whether to compete on the Sabbath. Muslim athletes face a particularly difficult choice if the Olympic Games fall during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the day, but clerics in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in the past have extended an exemption to their athletes, allowing them to make up their fast at a later time. Some athletes will take the exemption, while others will fast.
The 2012 London Olympics made a milestone for Muslim women as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei sent female athletes to the games for the first time. They were the last Muslim countries to allow women to compete. This year Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad has become the first hijab-wearing athlete competing for the US. In this respect, the Olympics have advanced greatly since ancient times, when only male Greek citizens could watch and compete.
Knowing the history and the religious spirituality background, the Olympics do contain qualities related to spiritual practice which commentators like Joseph Price describe the Olympics as a ‘civil religion’. Pierre de Coubertin (1863 -1937), founder of the modern Games is quoted as saying:
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Following the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy here are some ways in which watching the Olympics into a spiritual practice:
- Paying attention to all the small details of an event including the efforts of the athletes to get ready or to calm down, the noise of the crowd, the environmental factors, and whatever else that you notice;
- Savouring the beauty of exceptional speed, rhythm, balance, or strength. As former basketball star Bill Russell put it: “My own view is that athletics is an art form. As a fan I watch in the same way that I imagine an art connoisseur studies a painting”;
- Being present as you watch each event; realising that you are meant to be watching at this very moment. Not multitasking. Not allowing yourself to be distracted;
- Noticing the connections between what is happening at the Games and what has happened or is happening in your own life and the rest of the world. Remembering if you ever participated in an athletic competition? Recalling how you felt. Remembering how you felt the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat in sports or outside of them? When and where?;
- Showing your enthusiasm for the athletes’ quests for excellence. Noticing how the crowds react to the events and act as if you were there in person;
- Noticing all the expressions of gratitude at the games. When you hear an athlete thanking a coach or a team member; doing the same for someone who has had an influence upon your life;
- The practice hospitality to all the athletes from the different countries. Learning a little about where some of your favourites come from;
- Making a conscious effort to be joyful for all the participants and not just for those from your country;
- Records of moments of meaning, especially honest expressions of surprise or disappointment. Noticing which of your own emotions come to the fore as you watch the Games;
- A large part of the pleasure of sports is observing the athletes’ enjoyment of play. Letting them re-introduce you to this childlike state of being as you watch them participate in the Games;
- Regard these well-trained athletes as spiritual teachers / Role Models who are exemplars of perseverance, discipline, and regular exercise. Inspiring you in making a commitment to care for your body during and after the Games;
- Noticing and cherishing the unity that is essential to teamwork in certain events and the Olympics as a whole;
- Tuning in to those events which most arouse you sense of wonder;
- Remembering that for most participants, the Olympic Games are bigger than other sports events. Still, no matter how well each athlete has trained, anything can happen and the smallest detail can make all the difference. Respect the X factor — mystery;
- Finding a way to honour the yearning that has brought these men and women to the Olympic Games. Trying to imagine the dreams which have been part of their everyday activities up to this moment; Dreaming bigger for yourself; and
- The spiritual practice of zeal means to be fully aroused by life. Irenaeus stated: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Keeping track of those athletes who demonstrate these qualities and then reflecting upon what makes you feel fully alive and engaging in it.