The Olympic Games seem to be a time when the world comes together to engage in friendly competition. But a look under the surface reveals something very different. What has the world truly learned from the Olympics?
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For thousands of years, men have come together to compete on an international level. They vie for titles such as fastest man, fastest woman, greatest athlete, etc. It is the most watched sporting event worldwide. From the torch relay and the magnificent opening ceremony to the spectacular closing ceremony, the audience is wowed by glorious works of art and culture of the host nation, and incredible displays of strength, determination and endurance by the athletes. This great international event is known as the Olympic Games.
It has influenced every facet of life from religion to literature. An ancient Greek poet once wrote, “As in the daytime there is no star in the sky warmer and brighter than the sun, likewise there is no competition greater than the Olympic Games.” But the Olympics have not always been the spectacle that they have become in modern times. When and where did the Olympics begin? What is the true purpose for the games? And what have they taught mankind?
The first Olympic Games were held in approximately 776 B.C. in the Greek city of Olympia, 90 miles west of Athens. The games were a religious celebration, held every four years, in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Originally, the games lasted one to three days and, for years, it only had one event—the 210 yard dash. The rest of the Olympics were spent sacrificing to the many Greek gods.
Over the years, the games added more events—boxing, pentathlon, jumping and wrestling.
For the athletes, the Olympic Games were completely about pride. They competed not for gold, silver or bronze medals, but for honor and pride. The winners of the events were given a crown of fig leaves, and a statue was made in their image. There was no such thing as quitting. If an athlete gave up, he would not only greatly shame himself, but he would also shame his family. Quitting was so looked down upon, that if an athlete was supposed to compete and he did not, he would be fined for cowardice.
But if anyone failed to appear for an event, who could blame him? The competition was fierce! The boxing matches were extremely violent. There were no rounds. The event was over when either of the two fighters gave up or was knocked out. There were no boxing gloves. The fighters wore thongs around their fists. Some might think that this was to protect their hands. But that was not the case. They were worn so that when the boxers hit each other, it would cause more damage. The crowd loved it. There are stories told about the brutality of the boxing matches. Because of pride, one boxer refused to give up. He was so badly beaten that his own family didn’t recognize him.
Wrestling was just as cruel. Once again, there were no rounds. There was no padded mat and no ring. The match was over when one of the wrestlers submitted. There is a story of a wrestler who won matches by dislocating the fingers of his opponents—which was against the rules. But cheating and breaking the rules is not new. This was done in the ancient Olympics. The participants then had the mentality of “win at any cost.”
Married women were forbidden to attend the Olympics, under the pain of death. However, contrary to popular opinion, athletic competitions for women did exist. There was a 160-meter maidens’ footrace in honor of the goddess Hera.
The Olympics continued every four years for over 1,200 years. But, in A.D. 393, the Roman emperor of the Byzantine empire, Theodosius I, abolished the Olympic Games. The empire had adopted “Christianity” and the Emperor brought an end to the games because of their pagan origins. It would be another 1,500 years before the games would return.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin began the process of trying to revive the Olympics. And in April 1896, the Olympic Games returned to Athens, Greece.
Although society was more civilized and the events were less brutal, the spirit of competition and extreme pride was still there. Some nations even used the national stage that the Olympics offered in order to make political statements, as in the 1936 games in Berlin.
The Olympic torch relay is known today as a symbol of brotherhood and the coming together of the world. It is a most loved tradition. However, most are not aware that there was no torch relay in the ancient Olympic Games. It is a tradition that originated with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. The torch relay was supposed to show Germany’s link to the “greatness” of the ancient Greek people. Hitler pointed to how both Germans and Greeks were “Aryan,” and that they were superior athletes. Of course, that was all shattered when Jesse Owens, an African-American track-and-field athlete, won four gold medals in those games. Nevertheless, it does not diminish the fact that one nation wanted to show the world its superiority, and used the Olympics to do it.
Even in the face of political propaganda, the Olympics were once an arena in which amateur athletes would compete to the best of their ability for their country. Their focus would be on honing their skill and gaining the experience needed to turn professional. Yet, over the years, the focus changed dramatically. Nations were tired of losing, so they began sending professional athletes to the games—changing the Olympics forever.
As the games became more competitive, many athletes continuously found themselves coming up short of victory. They knew that they needed that “extra edge” in order to win. And many would do virtually anything to win.
In 2004, track-and-field proved to be a blemish on the Olympic Games. Many of the athletes who were set to compete in Athens were suspended from competition because of failed doping exams. During the 200-meter final, the Greek fans booed for ten minutes straight to protest the banning of the defending champion (a Greek), who was suspended because of doping allegations. Several medals were stripped from champions because they failed their drug tests. Some of the athletes strutted around in a display of gross arrogance! But at the end of the day, they were not victorious, and found themselves making excuses for less-than-perfect performances.
Also, gone are the days of good sportsmanship. In past times, if a judge or referee made a bad call, everyone would accept that a mistake had been made. It was a part of life. However, today, people correct those mistakes by protesting.
For example, during the gymnastics men’s all-around competition, the crowd booed for ten minutes straight, because they believed that a judge had robbed a Russian gymnast of a good score—and he had. Because the crowd would not quiet down, the judges revisited the score and changed it to make it higher. It worked—it appeased the crowd. And all of this happened in front of scores of millions of people around the world.
All of these things happened during an event in which the world was supposed to be “coming together.” Yet, the world is far from achieving that goal.
The U.S. has been blessed with good food, pure water, plenty of land and much wealth. As a result, the U.S. provides the best training facilities in the world. Other nations recognize this. So they send their athletes to America to attend college, become residents and train for their sport, and then return to their native country to ultimately compete against America. Technically, the case could be made that the majority of athletes in Olympic competition have been trained in America or by Americans.
For example, throughout Olympic history, the United States had always dominated on the basketball court. The U.S. would always send their best college players to compete. But, as the years passed, the other nations grew tired of losing. So they began sending professional basketball players into competition. In order to stay on top, in 1992, the U.S. began sending NBA players to the Olympics. With the likes of such players as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the squad, the media dubbed them “the Dream Team.” With that team winning each game by a margin of 40 points or more, they lived up to their name. However, over the next decade, the face of the NBA completely changed.
More and more NBA teams began recruiting foreign players. Why? Because the “old workhorses” who were dedicated to honing their skill and dominating the sport gave way to untrained high school kids who were given multi-million dollar shoe contracts, not having played one NBA game. Today’s NBA players are more concerned with how much money they make, how many points they can score and how many spectacular plays they can make. However, the foreign players are the exact opposite. They are much more basic and fundamental. They spend years honing their shooting, dribbling and passing skills. Once, the greatest shooters in the NBA were all from America. Today, however, many of the best shooters are from foreign countries.
With the experience of playing in the NBA, the world’s basketball teams began to close the gap with America. Since the 1992 Olympic Games, the winning point margin for the “Dream Team” has gotten smaller and smaller. Each team thereafter thought that they would just “steamroll” the other nations. Thinking themselves to be so much better, they would not even stay in the Olympic village with the other Olympic athletes.
At the Sydney Olympic Games, the NBA team barely got to the gold medal game, only winning their semi-final match by two points. But the gap was finally closed in the 2004 Olympics. Before an audience of over 300 million people worldwide, the squad dubbed “the Dream Team” was beaten in their semi-final game by Argentina, ending U.S. dominance in Olympic basketball. Truly, as the proverb goes, “pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
Nations are incapable of living in peace and harmony with their neighbors. How do we know this? Look at the track record. The world’s nations engage in games, while fighting wars, committing genocide, slandering, verbally attacking and hating each other. The nations of the world are not truly concerned with coming together in “brotherhood” for friendly competition. They are interested in seeing how much better they are than their neighbors. And the only way to validate that is to win—and they will do anything, including cheating, to achieve victory!
But why is there such fierce competition and hatred? Because “only by pride comes contention” (Prov. 13:10). That is what the Olympics are truly about. It is about elevating oneself above another. It is to say that “I am better than you.” But the pride of the world is going to lead them into a time of trouble that they have never seen. The Bible says, “For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:35). At that time, it is not going to matter how many gold medals were won, or how great an athlete someone is.
Jesus Christ will soon return and establish His kingdom on earth. At that time, all things will be restored, including the right attitude toward competition. Athletics will not be about pride and arrogance. It will focus on cooperation, friendly competition and character building. People will learn to live in harmony. And the only one who will be exalted in that day will be GOD (Isa. 2:11)!