The Church and the Olympic Games
Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and St. Vlassios Hierotheos
The 2004 Olympic Games in Athens are a top world event and our country is preparing feverishly because the whole world will be watching Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
The Church of Greece was faced with the problem of whether the Church should participate in the preparations for this great sports event. The Church had two options. The first was to not participate at all, because the Olympic Games, the way they are held today, have lost their purpose and their mission, because instead of cultural events they have been transformed to commercial enterprises of extravagant magnitude. The other view was that the Church should participate in this event because, among else, it has the opportunity to give a meaning to it.
After discussions in the Synod committees, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece leaned towards the second view, risking taking a decision that could be considered utopian. In what follows I will present some of my views supporting the decision of the Holy Synod.
Of course, I am not naïve to ignore the present state of sports events and the fact that the Olympic Games have been entangled with economic interests and a commercialization of sports. At their best, sports are infused by humanism. At their worst, they are related to a drug mentality with self-destructive consequences for each athlete. Even the change in terminology demonstrates the great problem; from athletic contests, that is, events associated with the words “athlos” and “ego” in Greek, i.e. a struggle for the improvement of one’s personality, to “games”.
However, I argue that because the Olympic Games will be held in Athens, the seat of the Holy Synod, the Church of Greece can not abstain from this top world event, despite its possible disagreements over the way these Games are held. There are theological and other reasons supporting this view.
1. Orthodox theology, which is the voice of the Church, is not an abstract ideology, is not impregnated and inspired by monophysitism and manichaism. This means that orthodox theology does not deal with ideas but with life and in particular with man who lives in a specific place and time and seeks his salvation. Furthermore, the Church does not deal with one side of human life, i.e. the soul, the spirit; it cares for the whole man who consists of soul and body. Therefore, we Orthodox are driven neither by idealism and manichaism -- a neglect of the body, of nature, etc. – nor by idolatry -- a worship of the body and of nature.
2. In Orthodox theology we refer to the skin coats that man put on after his fall and were blessed by God. One may argue that the skin coats, which according to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church are corruption and mortality, are everywhere in nature. The entire life, as it is today, is a post-fall effect which the Church is asked to transform. Art, culture, marriage, science and in general all human behavior are placed in this context. Sports are placed in this context too. Can anyone imagine sports, as they are today, in a pre-fall state?
So, the task of the Church is not to deny the fallen state but to transform it. The Church, with its theology and the whole therapeutic method, with its asceticism, seeks to transform the irrational to rational, to give purpose to the full existence of man, the after-the-fall one, to give meaning to his life. Actually, the birth of sports, as encountered in the bull-fights, which consists of the transcendence and transformation of the irrational element, man’s domination over the passible and the bestial element, may also be the object of church life.
3. As mentioned above, the modern Olympic Games have lost their original purpose, because the Games held in ancient Greece were associated with the holy -- sacrifices and theater, both of which, as well as the Games, were placed in the perspective of man’s purification and the search for God. Today, the Olympic Games have been divorced from religion and culture and have been linked to a sterile humanism and to commercial enterprises. Nevertheless, the Church, which has a dynamism, life, has the potential to transform and alter everything and to bring sports back to their true purpose.
Of course, it is not easy to change the framework and the structure of the organization of the Olympic Games. However, as the history of the Church illustrates, it may achieve the greatest changes through man’s rebirth, while also participating in the social process. Those reborn by the divine Grace offered within the Church abolish slavery, change institutions, transform social forms, alter the civilizations they encounter and create new ones with a superior meaning and purpose. According to scholars, Byzantine iconography originated from the portraits of Fayum and the divine Liturgy was modeled on the dramaturgy of ancient theater.
Similarly, today, we can change many things through the rebirth of the athletes. Even if we are not able to change the framework of the Olympic Games, we have the obligation to assist in many ways the athletes participating in them and to orient correctly those wishing to be involved in sports.
4. The hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens poses many challenges to the Church, and the Church can not ignore or neglect them. The pastoral care of the Church knows no limits, the Church converses with the whole world in order to transform it, without, of course, being adulterated itself. I would like to mention some of these challenges.
The first is that during the Olympic Games many Orthodox from all over the world will come to Greece. The Orthodox Church should meet them in an atmosphere and a spirit of love and hospitality.
Another challenge is that, apart from the Orthodox, many people will come interested in learning the history of this land. So the Orthodox Church will have to demonstrate that there is a continuous tradition over time, which did not stop with the conquest of Greece by the Romans in 146 BC.
A third challenge is that some paganistic traditions might show up, trying to claim that they are the successors to Hellenism, that Christianity is related to Judaism and not to Hellenism, and that the Orthodox Church only cares about securing paradise and not man’s life.
A fourth challenge is its publishing activity. It must present its teaching about the body, asceticism, exercise and show its cultural wealth through the publication of books, pamphlets, etc..
There are other great challenges which cannot be included in this short article. The fact is that the Church cannot remain pastorally inert in front of the challenge of history, despite the well-known problems of the Olympic Games.
5. If the Holy Synod had decided not to deal at all with the Olympic Games, I am sure there would have been many theologians, especially those who now seem to be concerned about the participation of the Church in this organization, who would have accused the Church of pietistic mentality and fundamentalism. This is so because they would consider it misguided for the Church to deal only with the salvation of the soul and leave the other life out of its activities and its transforming power.
It has not been possible to present in this short article all the reasons justifying the participation of the Church in the organization of the 2004 Olympics in our country. Despite the reservations we may have about the methods of championism today, and the way of organization of the Olympics, it would have been worthwhile to set a Synodical Committee on Olympic Games even if only because the Church has to address pastorally the arrival of thousands of athletes, officials, spectators and tourists, which poses various positive or negative challenges.