Religion in The Olympics… And The Olympics as Religion

Logo for the 2016 Rio OlympicsWith the 2016 Summer Olympics just days away, let’s test your knowledge of the religious history of the games:

  1. Who banned the ancient Olympics in AD 393, and for what religious reason?
  2. What 1935 initiative had the joint support of Reinhold Niebuhr, the first Catholic to be a major party nominee for president, and the American Jewish Congress?
  3. Who said, on the eve of the 1936 summer games in Berlin, that the modern Olympic movement “represents, above and outside the Churches, humanity’s superior religion”?
  4. Who said, on the eve of the 1960 summer games in Rome, that the Olympics “was certainly superior to medieval Catholicism and perhaps preferable to modern Christianity as well”?
1960 opening ceremonies in Rome
The Opening Ceremonies at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome – Creative Commons (Alex Dawson)

Answers:

  1. The Christian emperor Theodosius, who deemed the Olympics “too pagan.”
  2. An American boycott of the “Nazi Games” scheduled for the following year.
  3. Pierre de Coubertin, the Jesuit-educated founder of the modern Olympics.
  4. Avery Brundage, the American head of the International Olympic Committee — who had strenuously opposed the proposed boycott of the Berlin Olympics on the grounds that it was a Jewish-Communist plot to politicize the games.

All that and more in my Anxious Bench post for today, which considers how Christians and adherents of other faiths have made use of the world’s largest sporting event, whose first apostles meant it to be a kind of secular religion itself and whose current organization still calls “Olympism” a “philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.”

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