Ancient Immortal Spirit, chaste Father
of all that is Beauty, Grandeur and Truth
Descending appear with Thy presence
Illumine Thine Earth and the Heavens.
Shine upon noble endeavors wrought
at the Games on Track and in the Field …
To Thine Temple, to Thy Worship, come all.
Oh! Ancient Eternal Spirit!"

Whatever religion the Olympic anthem espouses (some nineteenth-century version of the cult of Zeus, it would seem, though he was anything but chaste), it sure isn't Christianity. Yet members of the Christian tradition were involved at the inception of the modern games, and Christians have tried in various ways to redeem the event or infuse it with orthodox religion ever since.

Two Olympic catchphrases originated with church leaders. The beginning of the Olympic creed, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part," was adapted from an address by Anglican Bishop Ethelbert Talbot of Pennsylvania to athletes at the 1908 games. The Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Stronger, Higher), was coined by Dominican Father Henri Didon in 1891. But neither of these men had a direct role in organizing the modern games, which are modeled on pagan games that began in 776 B.C. but were banned by Christian Emperor Theodosius I in the fourth century. That honor goes to French baron Pierre de Coubertin.

De Coubertin was educated by Jesuits, and his mother hoped he would enter the priesthood. Instead, he became enchanted with late Victorian humanism, which was busily rediscovering the glories of pre-Christian Greek and Roman society, and a relatively new trend in English education, sometimes associated with "Muscular Christianity," that stressed sport as an aid to the development of morals and even godliness. De Coubertin fused these ideas into "Olympism," and he began stumping for a revival of the games, preaching what has been called a "gospel of sport." "Have faith in it; pour out your strength for it," he said. "Make its hope your own."

De Coubertin knew that his project promulgated a new belief system. When he 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. … [I]t represents, above and outside the Churches, humanity's superior religion." He also consciously modeled its ceremonial aspects—processions, oaths, hymns—on rituals he learned in the Catholic Church. This idea of Olympic religion extended beyond de Coubertin to figures like former IOC President Avery Brundige, who called Olympism "a twentieth-century religion, a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion, attractive to the youth."

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Some church leaders immediately resisted this encroachment on their territory. Pope Pius X opposed the games for their "Pagan-seeming character" until a private exhibition by French, Belgian, and Italian gymnasts convinced him to give his blessing in 1906. Most Christians, however, responded by coming alongside the Olympic movement and adding their message—and music—to the celebration. At the opening ceremonies in Stockholm, 1912, Sweden's royal pastor preached a sermon in Swedish and the spectators sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Cardinal Mercier, the prelate of Belgium, gave a long-winded sermon on moderation and moral discipline to athletes and Olympic officials before the 1920 Antwerp games. In London, 1948, and Melbourne, 1956, the Olympic hymn was followed by Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

Such overt attempts to "baptize" the Olympics are long gone, but a Christian perspective is still valuable. As William Baker, a history professor at the University of Maine, mused on Australian public radio, "If Christ came to the Sydney Olympics, I suspect that he would be impressed with that grandeur, and with the splendor of the event. I suspect that he would especially recognize a kind of religious or semi-religious atmosphere being engendered. If one listens closely, however, one might hear him remark that there is a difference between grandeur on the one hand, and glitz on the other. He might further remind us that splendor does not necessarily rhyme with spender, and that gaudiness is not godliness. He might."

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

Related Elsewhere

The transcript of Professor Baker's lecture can be found at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion Report site.

The Sydney Morning Herald examined why Protestant countries win more medals.

Zenit, a Rome-based news agency covering Roman Catholicism, reminded its readers last week about the history of the Olympic motto and creed.

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has a wonderful Olympics site, including interviews with Olympians, articles on the crossroads of Christianity and the games, and other resources.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

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