In ancient Greece the Olympics held at Olympia were not simply a set of athletic contests, but more fundamentally and broadly were a religious holiday festival observed in a sacred religious sanctuary (likewise the games at Delphi and elsewhere). They probably originated as a religious ritual (Cornford, pp. 212-59). Thus, like holidays in general, the Olympics had a sacred character that motivated people to set aside this period as sacred time in order to have a spiritual experience, both individually and collectively.
The sacred character of the Olympic Games was reflected in Greek myths about the foundation (creation) of the festival, the origins of which were said to have transpired before the advent of humankind. Thus, according to the Greek writer Pausanias, Zeus and the Titan Kronos wrestled at Olympia, symbolizing his victory over the Titans, and the Kouretes were the first to race there (8.2.2). Apollo outran Hermes there, and beat Ares at boxing (5.7.6, 10). This mythology reflects the coming into power of Zeus and the other 11 deities of his pantheon (who were called Olympians because they ruled from Mt. Olympus), and perhaps also reflecting the mythical struggles between fathers and sons. Apollo too was important, because among other things he represented excellence and perfection (reflected too in the separate games in his honor at Delphi). Another story said that Herakles founded the Games, while another gave this honor to a local hero of Olympia, Pelops (Cousineau, pp. 30-31).
The festival, at bottom religious in nature, was held in the name of Zeus, at his sacred sanctuary in Olympia. It was celebrated not only through more purely religious rituals (e.g., sacrifices), but also by means of the arts and athleticism. In ancient Greece, the lines between religion (including rituals), artistic competitions, and athletic competitions were not distinct as they are today. This was reflected in the fact that at Olympia the temple, theater, and stadium were aspects of the same architectural ensemble. The Greeks believed that the abilities of athletes were bestowed upon them by the gods, so that developing their talents to perfection and exhibiting them in public had the character of religious ritual and was thought to honor the gods. This was the essence of competition; it was a sacred drama. Accordingly, victorious athletes were venerated as heroes. In fact, their moment of victory was when their divine attributes most clearly showed through, so it is not surprising that victors were elevated to divine status (see Harrison, p. 221).
Today much of the mythical nature of the ancient Olympic Games has been lost, but there are still traces of it in the modern Olympic rituals and in how we experience the Games. During these two weeks we suddenly pay attention to sports that most of us usually ignore (e.g., swimming and diving, gymnastics, and track and field, not to mention more obscure sports), we take interest in the personal stories and fates of American and foreign athletes that we may not have heard of before, and we take inspiration from the competition and the athletes, becoming emotional about it. Many of us (like myself) who don’t generally watch mass spectator sports nevertheless become engaged in these Games. We do set this time apart from our ordinary lives to some extent, because it does have a sacred nature, meaning that our experience of the games has a sacred character to it. As such, we can and do benefit spiritually from the experience. So it is worth considering exactly why, and how we could better approach our experience of the Games as a form of spiritual ritual or practice.
When we are inspired by Olympic athletes and their performances (even when they don’t win), it is because we identify with them and see in them part of ourselves: our better, higher part. They represent the excellence and achievement to which we aspire. The athletes and what they do are things of beauty. When we then consider what it takes to achieve such heights, we come to understand that the endeavor is ultimately a spiritual one. This, in fact, is how the Greeks conceived of the matter. In more contemporary spiritual and psychological parlance, it is an “integral” practice including mind, body, and spirit. Both training and the actual competition have to be approached as a form of meditation, in the right frame of mind. The Olympic idea represented a way of life, and it became mythologized.
In ancient Greece this way of life had several components. It begins with embracing the simple joy of play, into adulthood (although this concept was not formally among the Olympic ideals). In his Laws, Plato argued that engaging in play is a “supremely serious” matter: “Life must be lived in the playing of games . . . resulting in the ability to gain heaven’s grace” (7.803d-e). That is, when playing the gods are near, so play has a divine dimension. Today’s adults do not engage in enough play, which limits our consciousness. Of all sporting events, the Olympic Games best embody this spirit of play and inspire us in its direction.
More formally, the Olympic ideals included excellence (aretē), noble competition (hamilla), and honor (timē). When practiced together in a reverent, integrated fashion, living these ideals in training, in competition, and in life enabled the athlete to attain a transcendent experience, which was thought to be divine in nature. Viewed mythologically, the athlete’s journey is one form of the hero’s quest, and indeed the Greeks lauded such accomplished people as heroes upon their return home.
Today not all Olympic athletes (even medal winners) live up to these original ideals, but many or most do, and it is from them that we take inspiration. We can apply the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” to transcend our former selves. The founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin who introduced the motto explained that it its words “represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” Such an integral approach to engaging in sport really is not only preparation for life, but actually living it out. The vast majority of us who are not excellent or even active athletes can still be guided by and live according to the Olympic ideals. If we mindfully watch the Games, we are not only reminded of this, but are in part living in that spirit. From this perspective, it is both interesting and relevant that America’s foremost mythologist of the 20th century, Joseph Campbell, was a national-class runner in the half-mile and lived these ideals.
Sources and Bibliography
Cornford, F.M., “The Origin of the Olympic Games,” in Harrison, infra.
Cousineau, Phil. The Olympic Odyssey. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2003.
Harrison, Jane. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969 (reprint of 1927 ed.)
Pausanias, Guide to Greece.
Wolf, Richard. The Ancient Greek Olympics. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.