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Religion and the Olympics—and the Olympics as Religion

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For the next two weeks my family will become avid fans of sports we normally ignore, as the Summer Olympics take up temporary residence in the embattled city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

But as I’ve been updating my knowledge of water polo, team handball, and competitive ping-pong, it’s struck me that I have a lot to learn about another complicated Olympic topic—the role of Christianity and other religions in a sporting event whose founder intended it to inspire a kind of secular faith for modern times.

Gospel Platform

On the one hand, Christians have found many uses for an event whose ancient predecessor was ultimately banned by a Christian emperor. Few opportunities for evangelism are grander than a two-week spectacle that draws tens of thousands of athletes, officials, and fans from every corner of the world. In 2000, for example, one of many outreach initiatives saw Sydney churches provide housing for athlete families. This month, the 85 members of the multi-national Team Rio16 Outreach plan to distribute a quarter-million evangelistic pamphlets written in 10 languages.

The most famous incident of mass evangelism in Olympic history, though, may be the one that didn’t happen. Religion journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack recalls many had expected the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to feature “gingham-dressed Mormons handing out literature on street corners, extolling the joys of polygamy.” Instead, the LDS church kept a low profile, and those games became an important milestone in the mainstreaming of Mormonism. Mitt Romney’s performance as lead organizer served as a key credential when he ran for president a decade later, the first Mormon nominee of a major party.

Individual athletes have also used the Olympics as a platform for sharing their Christian witness. Two years after taking gold in Rome, decathlete Rafer Johnson wrote about his conversion for Fellowship of Christian Athletes: “Since then I have come to see how anyone can achieve victory in life through Jesus Christ. We experience this when we acknowledge that the achievement is all his. Through our faith, we share in his victory.” A 2012 New York Times story on charismatic Christian athletes featured American marathoner Ryan Hall: “It is while running or thinking of running, Hall said, that he feels most conversant with and dependent on God. And it is through this professional excellence that Hall believes he is best able to show God to the world, to display his goodness and his love.”

That Times profile quoted the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, in which the great Scottish runner-missionary Eric Liddell explains, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

When Faith and Sport Collide

Of course, Liddell’s story also points to another theme from modern Olympics religious history—that some athletes have experienced a tension between faith and sport. Famously, the sabbatarian Liddell had to drop out of his best event, the 100-meter dash, since a heat was scheduled for Sunday. (He went on to win the 400m instead, setting a world record in an event for which he’d hardly trained.) Few Christian athletes are sabbatarians today, but in 2012 more than 3,000 Muslim athletes had another choice to make: whether to fast during the Olympics in the month of Ramadan.

Olympic tension has also been found at the intersection of religion and politics. In 1936, for example, Jewish athletes around the world refused to participate in an Olympic games meant to be a showcase for the Nazi regime. Indeed, a 1935 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans didn’t want their nation to send a team to Berlin. Avery Brundage, the former Olympic decathlete and head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, condemned the proposed boycott as a Jewish-Communist plot, even though it received the backing of leading Protestants (Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, the editors of The Christian Century) and Catholics (AAU head Jeremiah Mahoney, former presidential candidate Al Smith, and the editors of Commonweal).

In Olympism We Trust

In the end, Jesse Owens led an American team that won 24 gold medals in Berlin. Yet sports historian Allen Guttmann finds Brundage’s position telling: “For him as for Coubertin, Olympism became a secular religion. No wonder, then, that he had fought ferociously against the apostates who wanted to boycott the 1936 Games.”

Coubertin is Pierre de Coubertin, the aristocratic Frenchman who revived the Olympics in 1896. “Deeply suspicious of conventional theistic religions,” Guttmann writes of Coubertin and his followers, “they promoted Olympism as a substitute for traditional faith.” Church historian Elesha Coffmann adds that when Coubertin “announced his decision to reinstate the games, he said, ‘The first essential characteristic of the Olympics, both ancient as well as modern, is to be a religion. . . . It represents, above and outside the churches, humanity’s superior religion.’”

As president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, Brundage proved himself “Coubertin’s most dedicated disciple.” He proclaimed Olympism to be a 20th-century “religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions—a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion.” And while the Jesuit-educated Coubertin had based Olympic ceremonies on Catholic rituals, Brundage used the occasion of the 1960 Rome games to imply that “Olympism was certainly superior to medieval Catholicism and perhaps preferable to modern Christianity as well.”

Ways to Engage

So how should Christians respond to an event whose website still defines Olympism as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind”?

First, watching the Opening Ceremonies tonight should remind us that there is worship outside of churches. What philosopher James K. A. Smith might call the “secular liturgies” of the Olympics seek to form us as lovers of individual celebrity and national glory.

But if we believe in good news that’s far better than SportsCenter highlights, we might do like the apostle Paul and let the games inspire us to practice our own kind of spiritual training. While Olympism is “exalting . . . the qualities of body, will, and mind,” we should ask if our churches are forming people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30; 1 Tim. 4:8).

And if we want followers of Jesus Christ to fulfill the second half of his greatest commandment—to love our neighbors as ourselves—then we might consider pointing beyond the glamorous facade of Olympic TV coverage to grasp and respond to the deeper economic and political problems facing our Brazilian neighbors.

Editors’ note: A longer version of this article appeared at The Anxious Bench.