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If you want to win an Olympic medal, you must train, diet, train, diet and train, plus buy flashy skin-tight glistening sportswear and weird wrap-around sunglasses and load carbs the night before--and, oh yes, become a Protestant.

That's the theory, anyway, whispered among some Christians and based on Olympic medal counts.

Since the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, predominantly Protestant countries have won more medals than all other nations combined. Protestant countries have bested Catholic countries by an almost four-to-one margin since 1896. At the most recent Olympics, in Sydney in 2000, of the top ten nations, 265 medals went to Protestant countries (the United States, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain), 101 medals to Catholic nations (France, Italy, and Cuba), 88 medals to Orthodox Russia, and 59 medals to hard-to-classify China. See the complete Sydney medal count here.

Of course, these are macro figures. Athletes from the "Protestant" United States may actually have been Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, nonbeliever, you name it. "Catholic" France surely sent Protestants to the Games, while "Orthodox" Russia sent Muslims and so on. Additionally, Islamic nations are hobbled by dress codes for women--27 countries do not send female athletes to the Games for this reason.

These medal classifications are at best rough guides. African nations had their best-ever medal performance at Sydney, for instance, bringing home a total of 35. Africa is so diverse religiously--Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, animists-- it's hard to know where to put it for purposes of a rough estimate like this.

Still, if you're looking for a Big Picture trend in Olympic performance, it's that Protestant nations are disproportionately successful though not necessarily tops. During the later years of the Soviet Union, the godless Commie bloc often finished first overall. (Many godless Commies were believers at heart.) Overall, though, Protestant countries do best.

Perhaps this only tells us that Protestant nations love sports and have the prosperity needed to train and support athletes. Group together the United States, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain--Protestant medal dominators of Sydney--and you could lead the world in practically anything, based on prosperity and economic output.

Whether these nations are so strong because of a Protestant work ethic, or for other reasons, is a question that could be debated forever. My personal guess is that the secret of success for this Protestant Five is not religion or geography or resources but freedom, and that as non-Christian nations achieve traditions of freedom too, they will bloom in strength.

But the Protestant work ethic question must at least be entertained as regards the Olympics. As the Catholic theologian Michael Novak wrote in "The Joy of Sports," "The spirit of play is Catholic; the spirit of work is Protestant." Touch football in the park, pickup basketball, tennis, or swimming with your friends--at essence, are play. Training for the Olympics--at essence, is work.

Many Protestant thinkers, particularly in the 19th century, argued that worldly accomplishment was a requirement for Christians and a proxy of merit for heaven. Thus work, work, work became embedded in the Protestant mode of thought, leading to the phrase, Protestant work ethic.

This can be deceptive in two ways. First, it's not exactly that people, who are not Protestants, don't work, work, work. At subsistence labor, impoverished Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus of the developing world work, work, work each day in ways that most Americans can barely imagine.

Second, the Protestant work ethic represents an inversion of a classical theological dispute between Catholicism and Luther's brainchild. Traditionally, the Catholic Church teaches salvation by works: You must exert yourself in life both by liturgical obligation and by moral acts such as helping the poor to gain God's approval. Luther, in contrast, preached salvation by grace: Faith was all that was required. The concept of salvation sole fide, solely by faith, would eventually get twisted around into the Calvinistic belief in predestination (that you literally need do nothing, you were born either saved or damned) and the Nazi-era concept of "cheap grace": As long as you went to church on Sunday, you could be a Nazi the other six days of the week.

The traditional Protestant theology of faith before works so totally differs from the contemporary Protestant ethic of work, work, work that the progression can be understood only by saying that most Protestants have cast sole fida as a concept aside. Predestination, for example, has all but vanished from Protestant thought: The Presbyterian denomination, descendant of Calvin, long ago discarded it. Some Protestants may privately believe in predestination, and hope they number among the favored, but you never hear this idea advocated in Protestant services. What you do hear advocated is work, work, work.

So apply the work ethic to Olympic training, and what you get is that the nations that lead in practically everything else--the mainly Protestant democracies--lead at the Olympiad too. As the rest of the world gradually moves toward freedom, its prosperity should improve, and at some point the Olympic medal chart will settle out to each nation producing athletic talent in rough approximation to its share of world population. Around that time, I'm guessing, people will care much less about the national medals standings, and simply celebrate Olympic performance for what it says about the human prospect.

Now there's a goal we should work, work, work to achieve.

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