Of Sport, Service, and Sacrifice: Rethinking the Religious Heritage of the Olympic Games

Article excerpt

The inspiration for this paper came rather unexpectedly. In February 2006, I made the long trip to my second home, Italy, in order to witness Torino's Olympic Games. Barely a month later, I found myself in California at the newly-renovated Getty Villa, home to one of the world's great collections of Greco-Roman antiquities. At the Villa I attended a talk about a Roman mosaic depicting a boxing scene from Virgil's Aeneid (Book 5). The tiny tiles showed not only two boxers, but also a wobbly-looking ox. "What is wrong with this ox?" asked the docent. "Why is he there at the match?" The answer, of course, is that he is the prize. And the reason he is wobbly is because the victor has just sacrificed this prize to the gods in thanksgiving. A light went on in my head; I turned to my husband and whispered, "Just like Joey Cheek in Torino." My husband smiled indulgently, but my mind was already racing. I realized that by donating his victory bonus to charity, Cheek had tapped into one of the oldest and most venerable traditions in sport: individual sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community. It derives from the religious function of the ancient Olympic festival and it deserves to be revived in the modern Olympic Movement.


The modern Olympic festival is self-consciously inspired by ancient Greek ideals. It conceives of itself as a revival of the ancient Olympic Games and it embraces their history and mythology insofar as they support its mission of humanism, justice, and peace. One problematic and often overlooked aspect of the Olympic legacy, however, is the religious character of the ancient Games. Whereas common religious belief was foundational to and instrumental in the millennium-long success of the ancient Olympics, the modern challenge of uniting a religiously diverse world community has pushed the religious legacy to the sidelines. Given the evidence that religious hegemony was responsible for the demolition of the ancient Games, although this is not the view of all scholars, modern attempts to dissociate the Olympic Movement from religion are certainly understandable. But in jettisoning the Games' religious heritage, has the Movement thrown out the proverbial baby with its bath water? I believe that it has. Interpreting the religious function of the ancient Games as community service, I argue that the modern Movement's failure to look beyond itself is allowing a commercial paradigm to usurp the Games' higher purpose. In order to effect a true revival, it must redirect its commercial aspirations toward humanitarian goals, thereby reclaiming the ancient religious connection between Olympic sport and community service.

The Ancient Heritage

Even in today's cynical and commercially-driven world of sport entertainment, Olympic champions are often lauded for their "sacrifice." Commonly, the word evokes the sweat and toil of training combined with the semi-monastic life supposedly led by athletes. In almost any other endeavor, the effort and lifestyle required would be termed "professionalism," or perhaps simply "work." Why in athletics do we call it "sacrifice"? The obvious answer is an ancient one. The ancient Olympic Games, like most sport in Greco-Roman antiquity, were a form of religious sacrifice. Athletic performance at such festivals was considered an offering to the gods, given as a service to the community. Extravagant rewards certainly were showered upon these ancient athletes, (1) but the religious context of the Games reveals that such rewards were motivated by perceived community benefits rather than commercial economy. The primary function of the ancient festival was neither entertainment nor product-promotion, but the garnering of divine favor in hopes of concrete community benefits such as plentiful harvests, release from disease, and victory in war (i.e. food, medicine, and conflict-resolution). Ancient Olympic athletes, in the religious context of the Games, should be seen foremost as community servants. …


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