*Posted by Kirk Spencer
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. ~ I Corinthians 9:24-25
What might the Mighty Achilles think sitting next to me on the couch and watching the Olympics? He would probably wonder how a heated (or not so heated) game of badminton would glorify Zeus almighty. I would have to explain to him that we worship different gods now. Not the gods of war and thunderbolts, but the more recent gods of Commerce and Consolation.
The ancient PanHellenic Games were considered sacred. And, as sacred, they were set apart from other sporting festivals where athletes competed for profit. The sacred games were only for “lovers of” (amateur) sports, not for those who would make commerce of what was sacred. There were no valuable prizes to be won. Only a red ribbon tied around the arm or leg of the victor. At the end of the Games, a victory crown may be given; but it was not made of gold, but rather, the twisted branches from some nearby sacred plant. Each of the PanHellenic Games had their own particular perishable victor’s crown.
A Laurel branch crown at Delphi in the Pythian Games
An Olive branch crown at Olympia in the Olympic Games
A Pine branch crown at Corinth in the Isthmian Games
A Celery branch crown at Nemea in the Nemean Games
So it seems there was no Olympic Gold in the Ancient Olympic Games. There was Olympic “Mold” however. For the sacred leaves of the victor’s crown would soon molder into dust; an appropriate icon for fame and glory, for both are fleeting and last for only a season. It is the way of the World.
The Modern Olympic Games we enjoy today were born at the turn of the 20th century. It was a time when the Gilded Age merged into the Progressive Era. What better icon of such a merge, than prizes that are gilded (gold plated). We all know that the prizes are no longer perishable branches and leaves from sacred plants, but rather valuable metals, reflecting the “sacredness” of Commerce. And though the Modern Games began as a competition between amateurs, the pressures of competition and national pride caused many countries to “pay” their athletes to train, making them de facto professionals. Now the Olympic Games are opened to professional athletes. The goddess of Commerce makes her appearance throughout the Olympic games with sponsorships, branding, advertising and all her other charms.
In the earliest Olympic Games there was only one event (a footrace). So there was only one Olympian champion. There was only one “best.” There were no consolation prizes, no secondary silver or tertiary bronze. It was not until the Modern Games that consolation prizes were added along with a multitude of medley races, and relay races, and team sports (the event count is now over 400). In the earliest Olympics the rules were relatively simple—just throw your weapon, or yourself, further than all the rest. Now we have such a complex labyrinth of rules that Olympians can “play the system” as well as the Games. In all the multiplicity, the glory of individual combat has been replaced with a plurality of popular events each with a plurality of prizes assuring that there are many Olympian winners (over a thousand). More champions means more consolation (and less distinction). It is the price of Commerce—the plurality of choice—and (at the risk of sounding sacrilegious) the consolation of mediocrity averageness better than averageness less than the best just a little less than the best.
Lately I have noticed an odd robotic “staccato” movement of Olympians in the events where scores are given by judges. It is as if, in striving for the perfect forms expected in the strict eye of the judges, amid all the ridged rules, the human body is becoming a machine of sorts. The once fluid movements have become trapped in structures and formulas made by someone else. With the loss of creativity the “routine” lives up to its name. The exciting flow of life is replaced with the tedious sequential order of the clock. The natural God-given grace of human movement is replaced with self-conscience man-made mechanizations. If so, this too mirrors our Modern Times.
I saw a commercial about the Olympics while watching the Olympics. Maybe you saw it. Everything was going backwards. At the end of the commercial (which is really the beginning), we find that it’s all about the inspiration that got it all started and the journey along the way—not about being winning, but becoming—not about being the best, but becoming (?)… just becoming I guess. Inclusive participation and the community journey is something the Modern Olympic brand promotes. Consider the Olympic Creed:
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
I wonder if this explains why the Moderns cancel the Olympics to fight their wars when the Ancients did the opposite and postponed their wars to play their Olympics Games. The Moderns don’t believe in God, or Heaven (or even the gods)—nothing really sacred. There is nothing heavenly to guide the earthly, nothing more important than the struggle of war that might put an end to war, other than a left-over idea about “goodness” but with nothing sacred to back it up. The Modern World has nothing after or beyond life… no finish line, no victory celebration in the afterlife, for there is no after. Just a quick end to the Caucus Race… then Nothing. So Modern life must, by necessity, focus on the struggle and fighting well. That’s all there is.
The Ancient pagan circle and Modern Commerce can be seen in the untarnished gold of round Olympic Gold medals. It is an earthly neo-paganism of sorts. And its gold-plated gold will not molder—not yet at least. One day it will. It will rust with everything else, on the day that all things are shaken. Only one thing in this world will never be moth-eaten and moldy—and it’s not Olympic Gold, but human souls.
So store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
~ Matthew 6:20-21
The “backward” Olympic commercial is over—the one about how the journey to the Olympics is most important—and after this commercial is over, they immediately cut to the faces of the Olympians and I knew instantly that the “backwards” commercial got it all backwards. Maybe it’s just me, but when I see the iron-clad intensity written across the face of an Olympian, the flint-like stare just before the moment they have been waiting for, in their faces, I don’t see anything more important than being the best… to them, at that moment, it is, and has to be, only about winning. And Achilles agrees with me.