Mormons and the Olympics: Constructing an Olympic Identity

By Lunt, David J. | Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Mormons and the Olympics: Constructing an Olympic Identity


Lunt, David J., Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies


Since the early twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise called the LDS or Mormon church, has attempted to integrate itself more fully into American culture while maintaining its traditional morality and exclusive beliefs. During the 1980s and 1990s, the LDS church constructed an Olympic identity by highlighting the achievements of Mormon Olympic athletes, touting them as examples of religious piety who enjoyed athletic success because of their adherence to specifically Mormon doctrines, particularly Mormon dietary laws. Paradoxically, the LDS church simultaneously sought to demonstrate mainstream religious attitudes and to downplay its differences with other American religions by associating itself with the patriotism and national pride related to hosting the Olympic Games. The LDS church capitalized on its associations with the bidding for and planning of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games to foster and cultivate an appealing and reputable public image.

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Since the early twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the LDS or Mormon church, has attempted to integrate itself more fully into American culture while maintaining its traditional morality and exclusive beliefs. During the 1980s and 1990s, the LDS church created an Olympic identity which capitalized on its Olympic associations both to emphasize its unique culture, teachings, and doctrines, as well as to claim status as a mainstream American religion. During this time, Mormons constructed an Olympic identity by highlighting the achievements of contemporaneous Mormon athletes and by revisiting the accomplishments of past Mormon Olympians. The LDS relationship with the Olympic Games culminated in the 1990s with the church's strong support for Salt Lake City's bids for the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Winter Games. An examination of the roles of three Mormon Olympic athletes, the way the Mormon church portrayed them, and the LDS church's role and objectives in Salt Lake City's bids to host the Olympic Winter Games reveals a great deal about how Mormon culture during the 1980s and 1990s used the Olympic Games to define itself both to the world and within the Mormon community.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the LDS church began to highlight the achievements of Mormon Olympians, both contemporary and past, and to associate their accomplishments with the Mormon church. By emphasizing these athletes' Mormon affiliation, the LDS church was able to stress for its own members the faith's doctrinal uniqueness from other religions. In a movement directed mainly at the church's adolescent members, LDS leaders consistently cited the achievements of Mormon Olympians as evidence of God's blessings to faithful church members. Mormon Olympians represented examples of morality and piety, and their athletic achievements indicated their generally wholesome lifestyles. One important component of this wholesome Mormon lifestyle was strict observance of the dietary restrictions that prohibit the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, and encourage members to eat grains and avoid too much meat. Mormons refer to this doctrine of health as the Word of Wisdom, and LDS leaders have often equated the achievements of Mormon Olympic athletes with obedience to this doctrine. (1) The story of Alma Richards, Utah's first Olympian, effectively demonstrates the LDS emphasis on Mormon Olympians as outstanding examples of faith and piety. (2)

The small southern Utah town of Parowan provided both Utah and the LDS church with their first Olympian. In 1912, Alma Richards journeyed to Stockholm and won gold in the high jump, clearing six feet, four inches and setting a new Olympic record. The nascent Olympic Games had yet to achieve the international status and acclaim which they enjoy today, and Richards' achievement was largely overshadowed by the feats of Jim Thorpe. Indeed, the New York Times did not even report the result of the high jump competition, nor did it mention Richards as an Olympic victor. …

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