The cult of sport

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Peter Leithart writes on the cult of sport. Here's some edited highlights.

Like a billion other viewers, I caught some of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games earlier this week. It was a marvel of planning and choreography. The visual highlight in a breathtaking spectacle was the moment when the two-hundred and four burning petals, lit from seven torches, rose to form a single, monumental cauldron at the center of the Olympic Stadium.

Awesome as the ceremony was, I watched with a renewed and growing sense that the Olympics is not about sports.

The Olympics are the tip of a multi-billion dollar iceberg whose religious values are no less powerful for being submerged. Our heroes of sacrifice are sports heroes. Our calendars are marked by athletic holy days (Super Bowl Sunday), seasons (March Madness), and bi-annual cycles (Olympics). We identify ourselves by our tribal clothing, our totem mascot, our war paint, and our chants around the field of play. The passions of an age with neither patriotism nor piety can still be roused by a close game.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, "father" of the modern Olympics wrote in his memoirs, “For me, sport is a religion with church, dogma, cult . . . but especially with religious feeling.”

Olympism was high church. Coubertin once said that without the panoply of symbol and spectacle, the Olympics would be another world championship. The Games, like ancient rituals, had to be “celebrated in a rhythm of astronomical rigidity” with a “quarterly celebration of human springtime in honor of the constant renewal of mankind.” Coubertin created symbols and ceremonies to embody the Olympic faith. Coubertin knew that Greek athletes offered sacrifices to Zeus, but he maintained that the main religious act of ancient athletes was “an oath of honour and disinterest.” By taking the Olympic oath, modern competitors proved their “virginity” and qualified themselves to enter the “holy of holies” of the arena. Adhering to the gentlemanly code of gracious victory and proud defeat, the athlete was “purified by the profession and practice of such virtues.”

Working out Christianity’s relation to sports raises tricky ethical and pastoral questions. But we can’t hope to untangle those issues without starting from the baseline recognition that Olympism was created to be, and remains, one of the church’s most formidable rivals.