By Andrew Bernstein
The return of the Olympic Games to the country of their birth is an appropriate reminder of their deeper meaning. The Ancient Greeks founded the games because they valued the spectacle of a great athlete striving for victory. But the veneration of athletic achievement is not a quality one finds in all human cultures. Why did the games begin in Ancient Greece as opposed to, say, Ancient Egypt? And why were they revived in 19th-century Europe, rather than, say, Medieval Europe?
The answer lies in a rarely recognized aspect of the Olympics–and of major athletic competitions more broadly: their moral significance.
Most admirers of the Games can name a particular Olympic moment they found especially inspirational: Michael Johnson in his gold shoes dominating both the 200 and 400 meter sprints in 1996, Nadia Comaneci’s historic perfect “10” in the 1976 Montreal Games, among numerous others. But few recognize the cause of that inspiration: the crucial value of the sight of human achievement.
Those of us who, physically, cannot run the 100 meters in 9 seconds, high-jump 8 feet or even pick up a discus–can still aspire to significant achievements. Watching a great athlete perform remarkable deeds engenders in the best of us the question: what might I accomplish in my field and in my life if I embodied the same degree of dedication? The great athlete is inspiring, because he reminds us how much is possible to a human being. He is living proof that an individual can reach great attainments and that profuse exertion in pursuit of a daunting goal need not be fruitless.
But to derive this sort of value from the sight of human achievement requires that one deem human success and individual achievement important moral values. Classical Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games because it was a culture that admired individual human greatness. Greek sculpture, for example, depicted the human form as clean and proud. The Greek gods and goddesses were anthropomorphic beings–they were conceived as powerful and beautiful men and women. In the Olympics, the athletes competed naked in order to better exhibit the perfection of their bodies. This was a culture of man worship, a culture emphasizing the power of man’s mind and the value of human life and happiness on this earth.
By contrast, the Olympics could not have arisen in a culture focused not on living life, but on preparing for death–a culture dominated by obedience to authority and the enslavement of the individual. Compare the Greek legacy of monuments exalting man’s life on earth with the most enduring monument of the Ancient Egyptians: the pyramids–tombs of tyrants built by the decades-long effort of slaves. Likewise, medieval Christians were similarly focused on suffering and death. They regarded man as a depraved being riddled with Original Sin, who belonged on his knees begging forgiveness. This world, in their view, was a mere testing ground of one’s faith in a supernatural being, where earthly success was proof of vice and suffering was proof of virtue. If there had been some kind of Olympic Games among medieval Christians, of what would it have consisted? A competition to see who could flagellate themselves most brutally, or who could endure the most painful hair shirt? The glorification of man’s highest potential and his achievement of this-worldly success would certainly not have been on the program.
The Olympics were then reborn only in the 19th century, during the full fruition of the Technological and Industrial Revolutions–an era in which man’s mind, finally liberated from bondage to Pope and King, succeeded in bringing enormous prosperity and increased life expectancies to millions of human beings. Dominated by a commitment to individual freedom and material prosperity, Western Civilization in the 19th century, too, was a culture of reason and individualism.
Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern games, selected Athens as the site of their revival in 1896 to highlight the reverence for man’s proper stature that his era shared with Ancient Greece. He stated: “The Olympiads have been re-established for the rare and solemn glorification of the individual athlete.”
The Olympics were born, and then reborn, in essentially secular, man-worshiping societies. The reverence for the physical accomplishments of superb athletes, and the inspiration such hero worship provides to individuals aspiring to significant achievements in their own lives, rests on a deeper philosophy upholding the value of human life on earth, reason as the means by which men further their lives, and the potential nobility of the individual human spirit. In the face of current Middle Eastern religious fanaticism that hates every virtue embodied by Western Civilization, it is well that the Olympics remind us of the secular values embraced by the cradle of that Civilization–Classical Greece.