"Religion continues to be part of Olympics"
("The Salt Lake Tribune", August 15, 2008)
Beijing, China - Religion has been an integral part of the Olympics since athletes met in a stadium southwest of Athens to honor Zeus.
In ancient Greece, there was no such thing as "secular athletics," said David Romano, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. "Feats of prowess and agility were meant to please Zeus, who picked the most worthy athlete to be the victor."
The games, open to all Greek free men, were held at several sacred spots in the Greek city-states, including Nemea, Delphi and Corinth, and honored their gods - Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon. Athletes walked in a procession to the temple of Zeus. The Olympic truce was developed to guarantee that they wouldn't be killed by opposing armies on their way there.
Eventually, it was competition that put an end to Olympic Games in A.D. 393 after more than 1,000 years: Christianity vs. paganism.
The games were the most "conspicuous and popular aspect at pagan festivals, attracting tens of thousands of people," Romano said this week, "so Holy Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished them."
It took another 15 centuries for the Olympic ideals to resurface.
In 1894, a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games, complete with symbolic fire, music, and pageantry that echoed its ancient past. Since then, religion - for good or ill - has continued to touch the modern Olympics movement.
During the Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler tried to tie his notion of Aryan superiority to ancient Greek idealism, Romano said. He barred Jewish athletes from competing for Germany during the 1936 Olympics. In 1972, 11 Israeli athletes were gunned down during the Olympics in Munich.
Rome, home to Vatican City, worldwide headquarters of the Catholic Church, played host to the 1960 Olympics, the first Games that were broadcast around the world on television. Catholic leaders did nothing to exploit the connection, Romano said, but "they might today."
A Buddhist temple formed the visual backdrop for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. And for its bid for the 2006 Olympics, Torino, Italy, came up with a logo that included the illustration of a church that houses the famous Shroud of Turin, believed to bear the imprint of the face of Jesus.
During the 2002 Winter Olympics, the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City became the ubiquitous image seen 'round the world. Though members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreed not to proselytize, Southern Baptists were out in force, sharing their faith with anyone who would listen.