"In sport and journey, men are known." George Herbert -17th century poet
The modern Olympic Games are a secular pursuit. However, we might find in them some connection with spirituality, with the inner life that motivates all individuals.
The Olympic Charter (page 11) talks about something called “Olympism”, which it defines as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.” Olympism sounds a bit like a religion, only without a divinity or any mention of the spiritual side of the human person.
Some ancient history
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 the sacred precinct of Olympia every four years to compete in athletic events in honor of the god Zeus. Although less well known, the ancient Greeks also held competitive games at Olympia for unmarried women in honor of the goddess Hera.
In the 5th century BCE, there were other athletic games in honor of Zeus. King Archelaus held nine days of games in Dion, a small Macedonian village on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus, in Greek mythology, was the home of the gods. While Archelaus’s games were not the famed Olympics, they are an example of the value that the ancient Greeks placed on the connections between body, mind and spirit.
Spirituality: the inner fire of our restlessness
In ancient Greek philosophy, there was a notion that the gods fired people into existence. Contemporary theologian Ron Rolheiser builds on this idea, and on the Christian idea of human restlessness that harkens back to Saint Augustine, in his discussion of spirituality. Deep within every person, there is a fiery energy. Our spirituality is what we do with the interior fire of our restlessness. In Christian thought, spirituality begins within the individual, moves outward to the community, and ultimately, culminates in a sense of mission.
During the Olympics, we witness a high level of fiery energy in the dedication, determination and competitive spirit that pushes athletes onward in hopes of owning the podium. And while the athletes command center stage, there is a bevy of people behind the scenes who assist the athlete in realizing their dream. No athlete becomes an Olympian without a community; the community plays a pivotal role in helping the athlete channel 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 than we might ordinarily expect to attain. And, when a group of individuals harness their collective energy in support of a shared goal they can make a difference in the world.
Olympism: Sport at the service of human dignity
Although I have no wish to idealize the Olympic movement, because like any human institution with lofty goals (including religion) it contains the potential for hypocrisy, I detect something akin to spirituality in the goal of Olympism defined in the Olympic Charter: “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” 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.”