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The Olympics: A celebration of the human spirit but not a religion

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 24 August 2004


Watching the opening of the Greek Olympics one would be forgiven for thinking that all is well with the world. There go North and South Korea sharing a flag, surely a sign of hope. There go all of those troubled countries that have witnessed genocide and famine and war and tyrannical governments. All is light and grace. You could have thought that the Kingdom had come. The reality is, of course, otherwise. The participants of North and South Korea will return to countries unchanged by their participation as will those from the more troubled regions of the world. The modern Olympics is 108 years old and it could be argued has never been a force for diplomacy.

The opening was a triumph of art and technology providing a kaleidoscope of human history and achievement. We were transported from early paganism to the achievements of philosophy and mathematics, past the Christian era into the modern, with all of its gadgetry and acceptance of the races of the world. But all of this was presided over by Eros, surely a slip that exposes our obsession with sex. It seems that sex is the resident deity of the games affirmed by the cavorting and obviously pre-coital couple splashing in the artificial sea. Is this a hint at what happens after dark in the village when the officials have tucked up their charges for the night? Or perhaps Eros is the only Greek god that we recognise to have power over our lives.

Now being the Jeremiah that I am, I cannot let this go without a sour commentary. Are we really to believe that the human spirit is triumphant and that its triumph may be seen in the sporting arena? Are we to be seduced into celebrating the human spirit by the pageantry and the patriotism that brings a lump into the throat of even one as hard-hearted as myself? Are we to believe that the mixture of Greek gods and the Christian tradition really make up a coherent history? For example, the Christian era made a brief appearance but in the end it was Hera, the spiteful, violent and jealous sister and wife of Zeus who spawns the milky way with her spilt breast milk. Somewhere a decision was made, either conscious or unconscious, that it would be Hera and not Yahweh who was to be the creator of the universe. The parade gave equal credence to the gods and the church, thus glossing over the fact that Christianity spread like wild fire in Hellenistic culture because the gods were a laughing stock and the old culture was at a dead end.

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Alas, the vision splendid has the smell of corruption about it. All we have heard about the games in the last months is the scandal of performance enhancing drugs and we feel that we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. Far from the vaunted glory of the human spirit this tells of elite athletes who are in it for more than to just play the game but to win at any cost even if they have to lie and cheat and slander others in the process. This is closer to the human spirit that we are familiar with and it is definitely not triumphant. We also hear that Greece has had to spend $1.5 billon on security, enough to provide fresh drinking water for a whole nation of villages. So much for the human spirit.

The religious nature of the Olympic Games is documented in a recent article in the Tablet

In 393 AD the holy Roman Emperor, Theodosius banned the games because they were thought to be pagan. The more things change the more they stay the same! The spiritual pretensions of opening ceremonies are cloying for anyone with a critical eye. We wonder if this is just another shallow triumphalism of the human spirit that glosses over the real state of affairs. Is the political climate of all those troubled countries really affected by their contributing to the games? Do they really shrug off violence and injustice by telling the world via the games that they are civilised?

We in Australia know about sport as religion. There are some who find their whole identity through the support of their team. Pity the politician who expresses a disinterest in sport. Atheism in Australia is expected, but not to support a footy team is political death. This is not to say I disapprove of sport, I get excited when I see one of the professionals chip a shot out of the bunker into the cup. Sport is wonderful. But I sometimes wonder if it takes too much of our energy and is too much of a distraction from more serious mindedness. It is too easy to acquiesce in the social small talk of the game in which it is possible to say nothing of import.

But my real concern is with the celebration of the human spirit. We love the sportsperson who has overcome cancer to reach the top, because it gives us hope that the world is more amenable to our will than we might think. Our sports stars become role models of hard work and achievement for the young. They become examples of the Promethean spirit; we will do and be what we want. The problem is that the achievement is vacuous. All of the commentary that “such and such” sports star has made history is bunk. Later ages may scorn our obsession with fractions of seconds shaved off the record. It is as if history resides in the Guinness book of Records. There is the danger that the focus on sport will produce an ephemeral culture that has nothing to pass on to the next generation.

Another name for Jesus is “apocalyptic”. Jesus said. "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

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Nothing could stand in greater contrast with the sugary sentiments of the Olympic movement. Here is a man who means business and it sounds nasty. It is the prophetic voice that cuts through the pretensions of the day and lays all bare. Jesus can say this because he saw that all of our good intentions and noble thoughts are based on a spirit that is rotten to the core, and must be swept away. Just as he saw through the religious pretensions of his day, his voice now questions the worship of a false god.

We in the church may be moved by the Olympic Games. We may feel a jolt of pride when an Australian is proved to be the best in the world. We even may be caught up in compassion for all of the small players of island nations and feel that we, after all, belong to one humanity. Those of us who worship another god may admire and watch and celebrate but we must not go to the altar. A warning sounds in our ears about idolatry.

The Christian tradition teaches us to beware of high-flown sentiment and idealism especially when it is linked to the human spirit. For Christ was crucified by just that spirit. All those good and decent men and women bayed for his blood. This is what the human spirit does as we have leant all too well in the last century. If all we have to hope in is the triumph of the human spirit then we are a people most to be pitied. It is a sad reality of human life that all of our most noble instincts, most deeply held convictions, our most passionately held loves all turn to dross in our hands. In John’s gospel the doomed Jesus says: “I have overcome the world.” The world that he has overcome is the world of the elite athlete who will do anything to gain glory, it is the human spirit which relies on its own powers and squanders its inheritance like the prodigal.

Jesus reaches into the hearts of men and women and searches out their most loved things and turns them into ashes. It is only then that we are truly free to love God first and the things of the world take their proper place. As Christians we look forward to the time when we and the world will come to our senses and return from the far country to the love of the Father.

It is only then that we may have a clean Olympics, only then that we will turn from human triumphalism to the only triumph that matters, the triumph of the cross that looks to the world like defeat. The Olympic spirit is just another revivified form of humanism. We know that it is a dead end. But in the meantime, enjoy the games!

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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