Beliefnet

ROME, SEPT. 18 (ZENIT.org)--So who wrote the Olympic creed, which begins "The most important thing in these Olympics is not so much winning as taking part"?

The phrase is usually attributed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. But, in fact, the person who said it first was Anglican Bishop Ethelbert Talbot of Pennsylvania in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, on July 19, 1908, when he addressed the athletes of the fourth edition of the modern Games.

Pierre de Coubertin was the creator of the modern Olympic Games and founder of the International Olympic Committee. Given the boom in sports at the end of the 19th century, he publicly proposed in 1892 the revival of the Olympic Games, with the double objective of sports competition and peaceful gathering of all nations.

In fact, de Coubertin popularized the inspiration he received from others' speeches. For example, credit for the official Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius

("Faster, Higher, Stronger") goes to a Catholic: Dominican Father Henri Didon, prefect of the Arcueil Parisian College, who coined it in an address delivered March 7, 1891, to the members of a sports association. Father Didon might well have encouraged the idea of reviving the Olympics. When Didon was a seminarian in Grenoble, his superiors organized "Olympic games" among the students.

De Coubertin conceived the Olympic structure as a new civil religion, with its symbols, traditions, rites and ceremonies.

De Coubertin was born New Year's Day 1863 in Le Havre, of a very pious mother (who hoped he would be a priest) and a Jansenist father who was known for his sacred paintings.

After making a pilgrimage to Rome at age 6, young Pierre was educated by the Jesuits, whose "liberalism" he appreciated ("None of them ever tried to attract me to the Society"). In fact, de Coubertin said that he "imbibed Hellenism" from one of the Jesuits.

Later, the baron met Canon Charles Kingsley in England. Kingsley was the founder of the Muscular Christians, a movement that shunned the traditional "contempt for the body" of Christian education and propounded athletics as a means to reinforce morality and the life of faith.

De Coubertin, however, went even further, to the point of promoting a kind of pagan "religion" of the body, according to the Italian newspaper Avvenire in its September 17 issue.

De Coubertin's religion soon took on a secular and immanent character. The restoration of the myth of Olympia was not only a program of education through sport or a pacifist manifesto for international coexistence, but also a return to pagan "religion" of the body. The athlete becomes a hero, a god.

"De Coubertin conceived the Olympic structure as a new civil religion, with its symbols, traditions, rites and ceremonies," one historian wrote.

De Coubertin himself never denied this religious aspect of his invention, and when he announced his decision to revive the ancient Games, he said: "The first essential characteristic of the Olympics, both ancient as well as modern, is to be a religion. ... [I]t represents, above and outside the Churches, humanity's superior religion."

The Olympics in fact preserve a quasi-religious ritualism: the Olympic oath, the parade-procession of countries, the lighting of the Olympic flame (by vestal virgins in the ancient altar to Hera in Olympia), and the relay race with the Olympic flame, which recalls a Greek race with torches, considered to be of profound liturgical value.

Mused Avvenire: "Today, however, in light of Sydney 2000, there will be those who will say that he was mistaken: the ancient 'religio athletae' has been defeated by the business of sport."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus