The Olympic Games, the Greeks, and God

The Games of the 30th Olympiad begin this evening in London, so the world will once again pause and reflect on the heritage that the ancient Greeks bequeathed us. The funny thing is that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t recognize these games. Lots of time has passed since Greek athletes last converged on Olympia to celebrate their quadrennial games in honor of Zeus. Our modern Olympic games probably tell us more about the values of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century than they do about the ancient Greeks. The ideals of the modern Olympic games are the values embodied by the progressive spirit of the post-Enlightenment. Both of these models of Olympic virtue, however, are problematic for Christians.

While the Greeks ran their races in honor of their highest god, our modern Olympic games have become a celebration of the human spirit. Look at what humans can do! Look at what we can build! An enforced secular humanism carries the day at our modern games, a humanism which would have been repugnant to the Greeks and should be repugnant to Christians. The International Olympic Committee has determined that all religious literature and symbols are banned from the London games. It’s a funny rule for a competition that was once-upon-a-time a religious celebration.

But if the IOC didn’t suppress our religious differences, how could all of humanity come together in a united brotherhood every four years? We moderns have envisioned these games as a platform to promote peace, and there is an element of this peace in the heritage of the ancient Greeks. Though they were constantly at war with each other, they would declare a truce for the games (and then get back to the fighting). For the Greeks though, the games pointed to military glory. The games preserved the archaic ideal of the individual hero, the kind of man one would encounter in Homer’s Iliad. The Greeks even had an event in which the competitors raced in full armor. It’s hard to imagine that the IOC would ever approve a footrace in which the participants run in camouflage and carry eighty pounds of weapons and gear. Today’s Olympics are about peace and the brotherhood of all men. It’s as if we attempt to rebuild the Tower of Babel every four years. We spend millions of dollars and countless hours getting ready. All the peoples of the world meet together and shout into the void, “Faster, Higher, Stronger!” and then everyone goes home.

The ancient Greeks would also find our talk about participation in the Olympics curious. The IOC and all their talking heads often tell us that the most important thing is not to win, but to take part. The Greeks, however, really wanted to win the prize. In Greek mythology, Ajax was so upset when bested in games by Odysseus that he fell on his own sword. (I can understand how we wouldn’t want to encourage that sort of thing this year in London.) We’ve been trying to downplay the significance of winning for 100 years now, but I really don’t think anyone is buying it.

So really, our modern Olympic games are a godless celebration of secular humanism, and the ancient Greek games were religious celebrations for pagan gods. Does that mean that Christians ought not participate in the celebration or watch the spectacle? I don’t think that abstention is the right course, but it is important for Christians to think carefully about the games’ message and think carefully about their own response. Eric Liddell, whose story was immortalized in the movie Chariots of Fire, provides a model of being in the games but not of them. Christians can participate, but they must do it on their own terms, and not let the IOC or the secular culture dictate their worldview.

First, it’s good and proper for Christians to enjoy athletic competition and to marvel at the feats that humans as the pinnacle of creation perform. The key, however, is to humbly marvel, always recognizing that we are the creation and not the Creator. Any excellence that athletes possess is merely a shadow of the excellencies of God. Second, we should yearn for the brotherhood of all mankind, but we must be wise enough to realize that peace and unity cannot be bought with games and spectacle. Christ will draw to himself people from every tribe and tongue, and they will extoll his glory, not their own achievements. Third, we cannot buy into the modern argument that participation is sufficient. Victory matters. Christ didn’t just come to play. He came to win. He defeated death.

When the New Testament writers spoke of the spiritual victory of Christ and his people, they alluded to the crown of leaves that was awarded to the victor of a Greek game. There was no prize for participation, or even second place. The victory of Christ is complete. So let us applaud the athletic victories at this year’s Olympic games, but let these victories always remind us of Christ’s eternal victory. And may that reminder inspire us to “run not aimlessly” (1 Cor 9:26).

2 responses to “The Olympic Games, the Greeks, and God”

  1. And if we are “in the games but not of them” it is a spectacular platform with which to give glory to God, as Liddell did.

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