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.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Past Christian History articles on the topic of Christianity and sports:
Olympia Revisited | 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.
The Sport of Saints? | Long before March Madness, basketball was invented by a man who sought "To win men for the Master through the gym."
Books & Culture featured a Special Section on Sports in its May/June 1998 issue:
Other related links:
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 ChristianBook.com. In 1999, Christianity Todayreviewed the book by Ladd and Mathisen.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Alternative Religions | Many non- and semi-Christian groups laid claim to the West, but none more successfully than the Mormons. (Feb. 8, 2002)
Zion Haste | Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East? (Feb. 2, 2002)
Final Solution, Part II | The Nazis planned to obliterate Christianity, too, according to newly published Nuremberg documents. (Jan. 25, 2002)
Tell Me a Story | The most helpful church history scholarship is both broad and narrative. (Jan. 18, 2002)
State of the Fragmentation | If "society" denotes a group with mutual interests and common culture, the American Society of Church History almost doesn't qualify. (Jan. 11, 2002)
Spurgeon's Epiphany | The event he recounted more than 280 times in his sermons first occurred on January 6, 1850. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
O Christmas Tree | A truly "traditional" tree would be unrecognizable—and flammable. (Dec. 14, 2001)
Christmas Countdown | When does the holiday season really start? (Dec. 7, 2001)
Serving God with Mammon | John Wesley's wisdom for hard economic times: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. (Nov. 30, 2001)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 21, 2001)
Where Are the Women? | The Christian tradition includes few female history-writers but plenty of female history-makers. (Nov. 20, 2001)
God Bless, More or Less | Irving Berlin's anthem captures America. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.