Every two years, people from all over the earth unite to participate in one of the most internationally distinguished events in the modern world—the Olympic Games. It is amazing to see how the scope of the Games has widened since its revival in 1896. Over 200 nations competed in the 2016 Summer Games, and nearly 100 nations have athletes competing in this year’s Winter Games.
One might wonder what a Christian should think about the Olympics. They were originally a Greek-only affair. Hellenistic culture lauded and esteemed athletic performance and the perfection of the body. Around the year 175 B.C., the Israelites, influenced by such a culture, sought to make an alliance with the Greeks (i.e., Gentiles).
“The proposal was agreeable; some from among the people promptly went to the king, and he authorized them to introduce the way of living of the Gentiles. Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the Gentile custom. They covered over the mark of their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant.” (1 Mac 1:12-15)
It is remarkable that the first thing associated with the Greek “way of living” was the gymnasium. And it clearly led the Jews astray. They adopted the pagan way of living and hid their own way of living. They abandoned the Covenant and God.
If we look ahead a few more centuries, we see the Olympic games being completely dissolved by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who was a Christian. He may have taken notes from the Maccabean times. This pagan content had to go if a truly Christian culture was to flourish.
So where does this leave us? Isn’t this the same sports culture that has replaced Church-going on Sundays? Do not the hours of out-of-school practices take away from the time youth have to participate in youth group and other faith-related activities? There may be some truth in all of this. Some today might be tempted to think that our greatest happiness consists in disciplining our bodies and optimizing our physical talents, whether for ourselves or for the benefit of the world. The Christian, of course, should recognize that “God alone constitutes man’s happiness” (St. Thomas, ST, I-II, Q2). Sports cannot become our God.
All of this, however, does not mean that we are obliged to boycott the Olympic Games. St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians takes a more assimilating approach to the phenomenon of the Games. Here is what he says:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to win a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it.” (1 Cor 9:24-27)
The Isthmian Games, which took place alongside the Olympics in Roman Greece, are likely being referenced here. Unlike Theodosius or the author of 1 Maccabees, Paul does not seek to condemn the entirety of the Greek games. Instead he points to what in them is good and how it analogously relates to the Christian life. He writes to Timothy with similar language: “while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way” (1 Tim 4:8). The champion of the Isthmian Games would win a wreath of pine leaves (for us this would be a gold medal, a Vince Lombardi Trophy, or a Stanley Cup). Paul tells us: yes, discipline your bodies; it is of “some value.” But train your whole person, body and soul, in “godliness,” and direct all of this to a nobler prize—an “imperishable wreath” to be won, not by one person only, but by all who choose to run the way of Christ.
As Christians, we can rest assured that the modern games are free of the explicitly pagan content once so essential to them. Today’s Christian athlete can compete without fear of idolatry; he or she can even be grateful for the opportunity to glorify the one, true God through athletic performance.
We join our brothers and sisters from across the globe in celebrating the Olympic Games and its many tenacious competitors, but let us not forget the words of St. Paul. We run, ultimately, for one prize alone—the imperishable wreath—and all else is ordered to that one end.