The Olympic Games: Perishable wreaths, gold medals and true identityWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Corinthians 9:24,25)
This is only one of several sports analogies in the apostle Paul’s letters, designed to drive home spiritual truths to his readers. The ancient Olympic Games, along with other similar contests, were major cultural events in the Greco-Roman world, no less popular than the modern games are today. They offered the apostle a rich source of metaphors to illustrate Christian principles, images that would’ve been universally familiar to his audience.
The gist of these athletic metaphors is just as obvious to modern readers. They speak of discipline, effort, perseverance – qualities common to successful athletes in every era.
But there are other details that may appear strange when compared with the modern Olympics. There were no medals for second or third place. In fact, there were no medals at all. Only the winner would get a prize – a wreath of leaves and branches that would wither and dry in a few days.
These details aren’t incidental. They carried deep significance for Paul’s original readers and can do so for modern audiences as well, especially during times when the Olympics are in the public imagination.
Background of the ancient games
The ancient Olympic Games began in Greece around 776 BC. Like the modern games, they were held every four years (an Olympiad) but were interspersed with similar games held in non-Olympic years. One of these, the Isthmian Games, were held every two years at Corinth, the city to which Paul wrote his letter containing the above athletic metaphor.
Paul and his fellow tentmakers, Priscilla and Aquila, were likely in Corinth during the Isthmian Games of AD 49 or 51. They would’ve had plenty of business providing tents for visiting athletes, which formed a sort of Olympic village during that era.
The core events at these various Panhellenic (all-Greek) Games included running and jumping, boxing and wrestling, horse and chariot races, and discus and javelin throwing. There were also song and poetry contests, as well as a religious element, with each of the games dedicated to one of the Greek gods.
All free-born Greek men could compete in the games, and there were peace treaties between warring city-states to ensure safe passage for all athletes. Slaves and foreigners weren’t allowed to participate and women were mostly restricted to the music and poetry competitions. Nevertheless, there is evidence that women also competed (and won) in the chariot races and the running events.
The Greeks valued human virtue and excellence above all things, and thus there were no prizes for second or third place. The victor – and only the victor – would be honoured in poetry and song, and sometimes with a financial reward from their home city. But instead of a medal made of lasting gold, they received a wreath of olive, celery or pine branches that would be gone in days.
These plants were sacred to the various gods associated with the games, but they conveyed another implicit meaning. If excellence was the chief virtue for the Greeks, then hubris was the chief vice. The wreaths were a reminder that while the athletes were worth honouring, they were mortals and not gods. Their triumph might be recorded for posterity, but they themselves would not live forever.
Paul tapped into this familiar imagery for his Corinthian audience. He urged them to pursue excellence in their faith with the effort and commitment of an athlete who won’t settle for second place. At the same time, he reminded them that while athletes receive a transient earthly reward, followers of Jesus will receive a reward from their Lord that lasts for eternity.
The spirit of the modern games
The ancient games came to an end around AD 393, by edict of the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I, because of the games’ association with pagan religion. They were revived 1,500 years later, in 1896, by Europeans committed to the classical ideals of unity and peace through sport.
The modern Olympics were envisioned on a more universal scale than the original, welcoming athletes from every nation and background. Shorn of their pagan connections, they became a secular event in which people of all faiths and no faith could participate.
It would be fair to say that the realities of the Olympic movement haven’t always kept pace with its ideals. Politics, commercialism and corruption have dogged the games through the years, but this was just as true for the games of the ancient world.
And it’s equally fair to recognize that the Olympics have made large strides over the decades to include athletes from every ethnic, political and economic background. Women have greater opportunities to compete in a growing number of sports. At the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, 18 of Canada’s 24 medals – 75 per cent – were won by women athletes. And recent games have welcomed refugee athletes who’ve had to flee intolerable conditions in their homelands.
At its best, the modern Olympic spirit combines sportsmanship with kindness and compassion, valuing athletes as people more than for their results. At the Tokyo Games, Isaiah Jewett of the USA and Nijel Amos of Botswana collided and fell during the 800m semi-final, then helped each other get up and limp to the finish line. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, tied for the lead in the high jump, decided to share the gold medal rather than doing a runoff. And the girls in the skateboarding event, some of them only 12 or 13 years old, celebrated each other’s wins with hugs and unbridled joy.
Perhaps the best story of the Tokyo Games was that of Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast in history, who withdrew from several events due to mental health issues. She received overwhelming support from her fellow athletes and many observers for helping to destigmatize mental health and for showing by example that the well-being of athletes is more important than medals.
Christian athletes at the Olympics
“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” This quote by Scottish runner Eric Liddell, immortalized in the film Chariots of Fire, is probably the best-known from any Christian athlete who has competed in the Olympics. But there have been many others, including from the Tokyo 2020 Games.
South African swimmer Tatjana Schoenmaker wrote on her social media, “Let the Games begin. Father God may your will be done, may your peace fill us up, may we praise you no matter what the outcome, may we be empowered by your strength to give it our all and may we forever be in the awe of your goodness! Thank you for bringing us to this very moment.” Underneath her national green swimming cap, she wore a second white one with Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone the glory) written on it.
“All the glory to God,” echoed American track star Sydney McLaughlin. “I don’t deserve anything. But by grace, through faith, Jesus has given me everything. Records come and go. The glory of God is eternal.”
McLaughlin’s teammate, sprinter Allyson Felix, a veteran of five Olympic Games, said back in 2012, “For me, my faith is the reason I run. I definitely feel I have this amazing gift that God has blessed me with, and it’s all about using it to the best of my ability.”
Nick Willis, a New Zealand middle-distance runner, explained, “Before I embraced my understanding of God and actually formed a relationship with him, my whole motivation for becoming a great athlete was to be significant to my peers. Once I understood who I was in God, how he created me to love me for who I am and not for what I do, that freed me from a lot of those empty, non-sustaining motives for doing my sport.”
And Jamaica’s diminutive sprinter, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, kept it short and sweet: “Just to be able to stand on the start-line and know I am a child of God makes me feel special.”
All of these Olympians who follow Jesus, and many others besides, know that their identity is in Christ and not in their athletic accomplishments. They compete to use their gifts for the glory of God, recognizing that the medals they have won are closer to the perishable wreaths of the ancient world than to the eternal rewards of heaven.
A celebration of excellence and grace
The ancient Olympic Games embodied the Greek ideals of excellence and virtue. The Greeks had a word for it, arete, which Paul used when he urged his friends in Philippi to think about things that are virtuous or excellent (Philippians 4:8).
Excellence, of course, takes many forms: physical, intellectual, artistic, athletic, cultural, moral. All of them have their source in God as part of his good creation, and all of them point back to God, reflecting something of his goodness and grace.
And so it is with the modern Olympic Games. Despite the commercialism and the politics, despite the stories of corruption, the games remain a celebration of excellence and grace. Once every four years, athletes from every nation and language cross borders and put ideological differences aside for a fortnight of friendly competition. Women and men made in the image of God display that image, not just in their athletic prowess but in their selfless acts of kindness and sportsmanship, in supporting and celebrating one another with genuine affection and joy.
For Olympians who are also followers of Jesus, all of this is conscious and purposeful. They know that their identity is in Christ and that their talents are a gift from God. They run, jump and swim for the glory of their Maker and to feel his pleasure.
The ancient games offered Paul a rich opportunity to point his brothers and sisters in Corinth to the excellence of God and the grace of Jesus. And once every four years, the modern games offer us the same opportunity. For that and so much more, thanks be to God and all glory to him. Soli Deo Gloria.
Sources and further reading
Alexis Belis, “The Ancient Olympics and Other Athletic Games,” The Met Museum, July 23, 2021.
Gordon Franz, “Going for the Gold: The Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games,” Bible Archaeology, July 16, 2012.
Laura Hayward, “Ancient Greek Olympics: 27 Historical Facts on the Festival and Its Games,” The Collector, April 8, 2020.
Whitney Hopler, “5 Ways to See God’s Wonder through the Olympics,” Crosswalk.com, June 28, 2021.
Jerry M. Hullinger, “The Historical Background of Paul’s Athletic Allusions,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 161 Number 643, July-September 2004.
Nicholas King, “St. Paul and the Olympic Games,” Thinking Faith, July 24, 2012.
Morgan Lee, “Cheer on These Christian Olympians from Around the World,” Christianity Today, July 23, 2021.
Akriti Sharma, “22 Most Inspiring Moments from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” Prestige, August 10, 2021.
“Welcome to the Ancient Olympic Games,” International Olympic Committee, accessed August 17, 2021.
“8 Christian Olympians to Watch in Tokyo,” Premier Christianity, June 30, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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