The summer Olympics begin today beneath Rio’s famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, we see a secular endeavor featuring more fanfare than faith, more spectacle than spirit.
Both the ancient version and the modern incarnation have deep religious and spiritual roots, which, some scholars say, are in jeopardy as every host city tries to go bigger, better and more memorable than the last.
Kimberly Winston writes in RNS:
“The Olympic Games is the international sports event because of the diversity of the sports, the number of faiths represented, the number of countries participating,” said Anthony Moretti, an associate professor of communication at Robert Morris University who has written about the Olympic Games as a form of civic religion.
“But there is nothing spiritual about Coca-Cola, there is nothing spiritual about Dow” or other sponsors of the modern Olympics, which Moretti and others have criticized for straying far from the spiritual intentions of the founders of the International Olympic Committee, the overseer of the games.
“So I think the IOC has some questions to ask,” Moretti continued. “Are we being true to our roots or are we abandoning our past?”
Today’s games are almost as religious in nature as the ancient games, though it is a different kind of religion — the rites and core beliefs that bonded the warring Greeks are still there, but they’ve become more secularized than religious, more civic religion than specifically religious.
That civic religion is primarily on display in the opening ceremonies and their rituals audiences have come to expect — the ceremonial raising of the Olympic flag, the playing of the Olympic anthem (originally titled “The Olympic Hymn”) and the reverential lighting of the Olympic torch.
There’s even a quasi-religious vow the athletes and coaches make during the opening ceremonies — an “Olympic Oath” to respect and abide by the rules, to play fair and not cheat.
The athletes who play by those rules and win, Moretti said, are “revered almost as divine” — think Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton. And those who break those rules suffer a more spiritual than legal punishment.