“All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football”,
God and the OlympicsSince their origin in Ancient Greece, the Olympics have had a link to faith. And Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern games was inspired by a sermon on St Paul.
Is there a Christian perspective on the Olympics? We have probably all heard the joke about tennis in the Bible – Joseph served in Pharaoh’s courts - or that the football team Solomon supported was Queen of the South (1 Kings 10). But has the Bible really anything to say about sport?
In the New Testament almost all the references to sport are to Greek athletic contests. Paul, in particular, often makes reference to the games and to competition. He also spotted clear parallels between Christianity and sport, and felt that Christians could take lessons for Christian living from the experience of the athletes of the day.
The relationship between the Olympics and faith cannot be denied.The link between the ancient Olympics and Zeus is clear as Olympia was made a shrine to Zeus in 1000BC. Young Greeks competed as an act of worship to Zeus. The ancient Greeks believed that the body and the mind required discipline, and that those who mastered this discipline would best honour Zeus.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls attention to the vigorous training of the athlete. The Christian is challenged to follow the example of the athlete and to strive for the crown which lasts: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, said at a banquet in London for the members of the International Olympic Committee attending the 1908 Olympics: “The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part…The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”. Those words have become effectively an Olympic motto.
What is less known is that de Coubertin was inspired by a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. He had said: “If England be beaten on the river or America outdistanced on the racing path, or that American [sic] has lost the strength which she once possesses. Well, what of it? The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible but incorruptible and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest. All encouragement therefore be given to the exhilarating – I might also say soul-saving – interested [sic] that comes in active and fair and clean athletic sports”.
When Berlin hosted the 2009 World Athletics Championships, the role of faith was acknowledged in a special worship service held in Berlin Cathedral at which Dr Wolfgang Huber, the most senior Bishop in the German state church stated: “It is good and right that our churches are setting a clear Christian emphasis during this World Championship. We are opening up space for God. It is necessary that sportsmen and women have the opportunity…to turn to God in prayer and share about their faith”.
The Olympic Charter guarantees freedom of religion and this is generally interpreted as the provision of a religious centre as a place for private or corporate worship in the style and manner the individual is accustomed to. Formal services are held at set times of the day as well as the individual pastoral support that the chaplains offer.
During the London Olympics and Paralaympics, a team of chaplains will be available to support the athletes.Their role is to offer support to athletes for whom competing may be stressful. Often faith helps them cope with defeat. When the British swimmer Kirsty Balfour went to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 she had won medals in the World Championship silver, European Gold and Commonwealth silver medal.
At Beijing, she did not even make the semi finals. “I was trying my best but I didn’t feel sharp and I didn’t feel I could pick up my pace or adjust to what other people were doing. I had just wanted to do a good swim for the team, for the country, for my family. My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my team mates”. It was her faith in Jesus Christ that brought her through the ordeal to the where she was “able to say ‘Yes, Jesus you are in it. You are here. This was your will’. I had such assurance that God still loved me”.
During the London Olympics, another form of support will be provided by the Athlete Family Homestay which offers beds, breakfast and access to local transport for a competitor’s ‘support family’. Run by More than Gold – the Christian community serving the Games – this programme aims to enable athletes’ family members to afford to be there – through the gift of accommodation and hospitality.
This article first appeared in the Times on line on 17 January 2012