Religion and the Olympics
The strange relationship between Religion and the Olympics
The 2012 London Summer Olympics are a microcosm of our world in the 21st century, if for only a couple weeks. There are 10,000 athletes from over 200 countries with at least 9 prominent religions (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Jain and Bahai) living and competing in extremely close proximity during these games. If you compare these numbers to the 1908 London Summer Olympics (2,008 athletes from 22 countries), it becomes pretty clear how much our world has changed in the past 100 years.
The increase of modern technology and globalization in the past century has also led to a dramatic increase of diversity and multiculturalism in most Western countries. As a Canadian it is not difficult to speak of the many benefits of multiculturalism, but one difficulty is knowing how to deal with many religions in close proximity. Religion itself is not the problem. What is the problem are the competing and contradictory truth claims these religions hold to. As a result, one of the dominant questions of our time is how do you live in a civil society without demeaning one’s freedom of belief in religion?
The traditional response to this question in the modern era has been secularization. It was believed, and still is, that religion can be separated from almost all forms of public life. Government, education, work, and sports were to be separate from one’s personal religious beliefs. One religion was not to be superior to other religions. After all, who’s to say that one is right while the other is wrong? This is why we in the Western world are very familiar with the notion of pluralism, the idea that all religions are equally true.
Alternatively, the Olympic response to the question of freedom of belief is an interesting and rather complicated one. On the surface it appears that secularism and pluralism are at the heart of the Olympic pursuit for civility in sports. Secularism because the Olympic Charter doesn’t even mention religious belief, and pluralism because the Olympic committee wants to avoid unnecessary offence – an appropriate goal let’s not forget.
For example, the Olympics are providing 193 chaplains to serve those involved in the Games. The chaplains have been provided with badges with the word “faith” and a globe on them to identify themselves as religious chaplains. Original plans for a design featuring the symbols of each of the nine religions represented on the London committee were rejected because not all of the chaplains were comfortable wearing symbols of other faiths. As Lord Coe, the chairman of London’s Olympic organizing committee, said, “the Games are about multiculturality.” No one religion is to be above any other.
However, from the time of the ancient Greeks to today, the Olympics remain wrought with religious symbolism and meaning.
For the ancient Greeks, the Olympics were a festival replete with sports, sacrifices, and hymns in honor of Zeus, the chief Greek God. In the ancient world there was no such thing as secular athletics. Religion could not be separated from public life. Therefore, it should not be surprising that in AD 393 the Christian Emperor Theodosius banned the Olympics because they had become a place of pagan worship contrary to the beliefs of Christianity.
The Olympics were non-existent for 1500 years until 1894 when a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin re-envisioned the Olympic games as a new civil religion of “Olympism” that transcended any particular religion.
This did not mean that Coubertin wanted to separate religion from sports. In his memoirs, Coubertin wrote that sports were “a religion with its church, dogmas, service… but above all, a religious feeling.”
A religion of its own
But what Coubertin’s vision of Olympism did mean was that in the modern era the Olympics were to become a sort of quasi-religion with it’s own symbols, traditions, rites, and ceremonies that are separate from the religious symbols of the world’s most prominent religions. So, in an effort to respect one’s freedom of belief in an increasingly complex multicultural global world, the Olympics became a sort of religion of its own.
Therefore, to say that the Olympics are not inherently religious is simply not true. There are many religious elements still lingering from the ancient Greeks. For example, every gold medal since 1928 has been imprinted with the image of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and the lighting of the Olympic flame resembles a ritual performed by vestal virgins in ancient Olympia.
It should be apparent then that religious beliefs can never be fully separated from public life, regardless of your religion or definition of religion. This is what our modern age doesn’t understand and this is why I think the Olympics are important. For the Olympics should, or could, be a place of religious dialogue with a spirit of respect, excellence, and friendship – the core values of the Olympic Games. And the fact that the London Olympic Committee has provided a prayer room at every venue, a multi-faith center in the Olympic village, and a record number of chaplains for the athletes makes me hopeful that the Olympic Games are at least moving in the right direction.