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As you've probably noticed, Christian faith is not among the ideals touted by the unblushingly idealistic Olympics. You may also have noticed that the official language of the games is French (even though French is the primary language for only 1.2 percent of the world's people). These two observations are related.

A Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, instituted the modern games in 1896. He touted them as a celebration of "Olympism," a "school of nobless and moral purity" that he considered to be "humanity's superior religion." Christians may not have been thrilled with the new competition's soul, but they admired its body. They began to take unprecedented interest in sport, though with ideals quite different from de Coubertin's in mind.

While boundless optimism about technological progress and the brotherhood of man motivated many at the close of the nineteenth century, anxiety slipped into Protestant churches. Leaders lamented that the church had become too feminized: Fanny Crosby's hymns permeated morning worship, pastel pictures of Jesus smiled up from religious publications, women pressed for positions of denominational leadership, and men accounted for an ever smaller percentage of church attendees.

Church leaders also worried about the decline of physical labor facilitated by industrialization, because they considered physical vigor a reflection of moral and spiritual health. Efficient but flabby workers were considered unfit to model the gospel either at home or on the mission field. Racial concerns played a part as well. America's white, Protestant elite feared the growing physical and numerical strength of dark-skinned laborers and Catholic European immigrants. Protestants needed to beef up.

American Christians launched their fitness campaign with the help of two British imports, the rhetoric of "muscular Christianity" and the Young Men's Christian Association. Both ideas crossed the Atlantic in the mid-nineteenth century but did not gain real momentum until the 1880s and 1890s, with the support of such figures as D.L. Moody. By the end of the century thousands of young people played, prayed, sang, slept, and studied the Bible in hundreds of Ys across the country.

To a far greater extent than any church softball league today, muscular Christianity and the YMCA envisioned a union of body, mind, and spirit, as represented in the Y's triangle symbol. Basketball and volleyball-both late-nineteenth century YMCA inventions-were not merely diversions or defenses against heart disease, but integral components in a program to tame inner-city vices, promote spiritual vitality, and, as the slogan for the YMCA-affiliated Student Volunteer Movement phrased it, advance "the evangelization of the world in this generation."

Clifford Putney's 2001 book Muscular Christianity (Harvard) does a particularly good job of capturing the movement's rhetorical heights, which easily matched the gush of Olympism. In his introduction, Putney quotes psychologist and muscular Christian kingpin G. Stanley Hall from 1902: "Among all the marvelous advances of Christianity either within this organization [the YMCA] or without it, in this land and century or any other lands and ages, the future historian of the church of Christ will place this movement of carrying the gospel to the body as one of the most epoch making." De Coubertin's bit about Olympism claiming "air and light for all" doesn't sound so inflated by comparison.

Olympism as a "religion" exerts less influence over the Olympic Games now than it did a century ago. Once the excesses of the opening ceremonies have passed, attention turns to advances in technique and equipment, the obligatory triumphs over adversity, scoring squabbles, and the medal count. Even the symbol-fraught torch procession has become more a showcase for local pride than for either late Victorian or ancient Greek ecstasies.

Muscular Christianity also faded in its original power bases, mainline churches and ecumenical institutions like the YMCA, but a modified version flourished among fundamentalists and their evangelical descendants. An energetic, athletic young Billy Graham routinely included sports stars in his crusades. Later came the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Christian Camping International, Promise Keepers, and Kurt Warner. Newer faith-and-fitness programs have ditched the old racial fears (reconciliation is a major focus at Promise Keepers) and generally reach out to women as well as men, but the idea that fit and fresh-faced Christians make the best ambassadors for faith lives on.

You just won't hear about it at the Olympics.

Past newsletters and articles on the topic of Christianity and sports:

Olympia Revisited.

The Sport of Saints?

Books & Culture featured a Special Section on Sports in its May/June 1998 issue.

Other related links:

The Official Website of the Olympic Movement Click here for the article.

A Brief History of the YMCA Movement Click here for the article.

Putney's Muscular Christianity is available at Amazon.com. A more celebratory book by the same name, by Tony Ledd and James Mathisen, is available at our partner store, ChristianBook.com