The modern Olympic Games are properly areligious. However, we might find in “Olympism” some connection with spirituality, with the inner life that motivates all individuals.
The Olympic Charter defines Olympism as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind” and its goal is to place sport at the service of “the harmonious development of humankind.”
The ancient Olympic Games were part of a religious festival. From at least as early as 776 BCE, male Greek citizens gathered on the plains of Olympia to compete in athletic events in honor of the god Zeus. In the 5th century BCE, there were other athletic games in honor of Zeus held on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the mythological home of the gods. While not the famed Olympics, these games are an example of the value that the ancient Greeks placed on the connections between body, mind and spirit.
In ancient Greek philosophy, there was a notion that the gods fired people into existence. In his discussion of spirituality, contemporary theologian Ron Rolheiser builds on this idea, and on the idea of human restlessness. Deep within every person, there is a fiery energy. Our spirituality is what we do with the interior fire of our restlessness. Spirituality begins within the individual, moves outward to the community, and culminates in a sense of mission.
During the Olympics, we witness a high level of fiery energy in athletes as they push towards the podium. And while the athletes command center stage, there is a community behind the scenes assisting them in channeling their inner fire.
While some might consider restlessness something to avoid, I think that human restlessness, when appropriately directed, is beneficial for us as individuals, and for human society. On the personal level, the fire within us can prod us towards higher levels of achievement. And, when a group of individuals harness their collective energy in support of a shared goal they can make a difference in the world.
Although I have no wish to idealize the Olympic movement, because like any human institution with lofty goals it contains the potential for hypocrisy, I detect something akin to spirituality in the goal of Olympism There may be a spiritual aspect to Olympism in the passion of the athlete, in the guidance and commitment of the community that surrounds the athlete, and in Olympism’s goal of service to the common good.
Within the last few days, there have been some inspiring stories that demonstrate the harnessing of the fiery energy of athletic competition and a willingness to serve the common good. The sportsmanship of Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth who rushed to help a Russian skier, and the selflessness of speed skater Gilmore Junio who gave up his spot to teammate Denny Morrison may have nothing to do with faith or religion, per se, but there is a spirituality to these actions that reveals the inner life of the individual. As the 17th century poet George Herbert observed, “in sport and journey men are known.”
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a catechist and former teacher, with degrees in English and Theology.