You may be surprised to read that the Olympiads began in the Far East dating from 776 BC. The game of organized sports is credited to Buddhist monks in China. Jujitsu, boxing, and wrestling developed with them. Ball games, jumping, acrobatics, weight lifting, hoop rolling, and bull fighting were cultivated in Persia and India, throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, and Rome.
The Games Move West
Greek schools incorporated physical training in a systematic way, and the veneration of athletes appears in sculptures as well as in decoration of vases, coins, and gems. Their main purpose was to show the physical prowess of youth, but the first Olympiads were closely linked to the cult of the Greek god Zeus. Thus the Olympic Games owe their purity and high moral aspirations to ancient religions.
From first to last, the Olympic Games celebrate character in action. In large measure, this means self-denial with a disciplined will that refuses to quit. Such idealism urges that the Olympic Games be played with honesty, grace, and intensity. Cheating in its various forms contradicts the high moral tone that summons us to them. Each year, the Olympic community remembers in prayer the eleven Israelis who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Massacre.
Pierre de Coubertin, Father of the Modern Olympic Games
Pierre de Coubertin professed his philosophy of the competition with these words: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Born in 1863 in Normandy, France, Pierre de Coubertin received a classical education at the Jesuit College of St. Ignatius in Paris and went on to study law. He reserved his passion however for education. After having visited England to compare the British and French educational systems, he embarked on his life’s vocation, that of reforming education through sports.
Beginning in 1890, de Courbertin was wholly engaged in restoring the high standards that had marked the Olympics of Ancient Greece. After the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, he assumed the role of President and held this post until 1925 when he became Honorary President for life. He died in 1937.
Pierre de Coubertin Seeks Help from Pope Pius X
In 1905, de Courbertin told “The New York Tribune” that he sought and received financial support from Pius X for the Olympic Games.
The pontiff said that the Church throughout the world ought to take eager interest in athletic culture and help in promoting physical progress among boys and girls of the rising generation. He opined that healthful open-air sport was the surest means of compensating for the ever-increasing strenuous mental work required of all who take an intelligent share in the everyday task of contemporary civilization (“The Dawn Patrol”, July 27, 2012).
At the time, Pius X saw international sports as a way to approach young people and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries . . . that it was possible to bring people together without any problems of race, religion, or differing political ideas.
Saints Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas on Physical Fitness
The Early Fathers linked physical and spiritual fitness to keep healthy and become holy, a twofold ideal. St. Clement of Alexandria (d 215) also taught that physical exercise is effective in maintaining a pleasing physical appearance, but of the two, the spiritual fitness takes priority. This view was strongly held by St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) who said that exercise increases the blood supply into the brain, and this oxygen in the brain helps people to think more clearly and more deeply.
The Gospel through Kayaking
John Paul II, who was a fine athlete even into his papacy, never ceased to remind the faithful, and particularly our youth, that the human body has a specific meaning and role to play in God’s creative plan (Theology of the Body 1-129, 1982-84). In his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel writes that as a young priest, Father Karol “took single and married couple hiking, skiing, and kayaking. As a veteran hiker from his youth in Wadowice, the future pontiff was thoroughly at home in nature. And so he created the pastoral method of accompanying his young friends to Poland’s mountains and lakes.”
Weigel continues: “The annual kayak trips were a vacation plus, and they were always the occasion for conversation or for spiritual direction. Mass was celebrated using an overturned kayak as an altar, with two paddles tied together to form the altar cross. He made it a point to take a meal with a different family every day of the vacation, working his way around the entire group. Soccer games were organized between the married team and the youth team. Wujek, his nickname, “played for whichever team was shorthanded. Around the campfire in the evening, the adults would discuss significant books or church documents.”
“The future pontiff’s essential point was that the priest’s duty to help make God present in the world was not satisfied by his daily celebration of Mass. In addition, “the duty of a priest is to live with people, everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin. That was the context for looking at vacations as a pastoral opportunity. Daily Mass took on a special texture on a vacation trek: nature, not only human art, participates in the sacrifice of the Son of God. At Mass, a thought for the day could be proposed and reflected on during evening prayer.”
“An excursion had to be a well-prepared improvisation in which the priest was ready and willing to talk about everything: “about movies, about books, about one’s own work, about scientific research, and about jazz bands. Was this kind of pastoral work, built around vacations with young men and women, a compromise of the priesthood?”
This form of ministry had to be discerned by the individual priest, but it was certainly a way of leading others to Christ. The excursions helped the young people look at their problems from a different perspective...to look at all things in the spirit of the Gospel” (103ff). These excursions created the sense of a Christian community.
Symbolism of the Five Rings
The Olympic symbol, the five intertwined rings, represents the unity of the five continents. The rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red over a white field form the Olympic flag. The Games always begin with the raising of the flag and majestic displays of music, singing, dance, and theater representative of the host nation. With their closing, three national flags are hoisted with the corresponding national anthems of the flag: that of Greece to honor the birthplace of the Olympiads, the flag of the current country, and the flag of the country hosting the next summer or winter games. The next host nation briefly introduces itself with artistic displays representative of its culture.
Regardless of activity, regardless of sport, all activity is intended to give God our praise and glory.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.