The Greek Olympics
From mythical dreams to sobering realities
by Berit Kjos - 2004
Don Walker, "Fortifying Olympics is toughest game of all"
"Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is the protector of this congested Olympic city ringed by mountains and haze. But she doesn't work alone anymore. ...The protection comes in the form of 70,000 troops, law enforcement personnel, an undetermined number of behind-the-scenes support people, seven nations including the United States, and NATO. ... There are at least 1,400 security cameras set up at key locations.... Near the Acropolis in the center of the city, military helicopters buzz overhead.... Patriot missiles are situated in the region."
"Immortal spirit of antiquity," sang the Olympic chorus during the long-awaited opening ceremony. "Father of the true, beautiful and good, descend, appear, shed over us thy light...."
Like the mystical god of Huxley's Brave New World, the universal god described in the Olympic Hymn was designed to unify all people -- and offend none. But to the Greek hosts of the 2004 games, this illusion of truth and goodness must have sounded a bit hollow on opening day. Although they had built their magnificent structures dedicated to the dream of Olympic glory, worldwide peace and human perfection, their facade would soon be shattered. As USA Today wrote,
"Star sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou were suspended Saturday from the Greek Olympic team for missing drug tests, a stunning blow to the host nation of the Summer Games. ...The case has shamed Greece and overshadowed the opening of what was supposed to be a triumphant showcase of national pride and achievement.
"Kenteris, the reigning 200-meter champion, is the country's most celebrated athlete and was its top hope for a gold medal in track. Thanou, the 100-meter silver medalist in Sydney four years ago, is his training partner. ... Kenteris and Thanou have a history of being hard to find for drug tests and rarely run in international competitions outside the games."
The scandal was blanketed by the dramatic opening ceremony designed to bring the watching world on "an allegorical journey through the evolution of human consciousness." This visual experience began with two drummers invoking a fireball that lit five Olympic rings rising from the water inside the arena -- an expansive indoor sea that represented the "mother of humanity." This mythical "mother" communicated her message to the world through a popular singer from Iceland. "You have done good for yourselves," sang Ms Bjork, "since you left my wet embrace and crawled ashore."
The evolutionary extravaganza included a moving display of Greek gods and heroes such as Zeus, Athena, Hercules and Pegasus. Eros, the mischievous god of lustful love, smiled down on a sensual pair of frolicking lovers. They were followed by a pregnant fertility goddess with a protruding abdomen that lit up like a dome of light. This led to a celebration of DNA and its marvelous blueprint of individual life. Apparently, Eros, evolution and the goddess -- certainly not the sovereign Creator -- were credited with life as we know it today.
Finally, the Olympic torch was carried into the arena and up the final stairs to the huge, contemporary Olympic cauldron. A towering post bent down as if to receive the life-giving flame from the last torch bearer, Nikolaos Kaklamanakis. Meanwhile, the news media speculated that Kaklamanakis, a gold medal winner in the 1996 Olympic sailing race, was a last minute substitute for the discredited runner Kenteris.
No one mentioned that the worldwide torch relay has its origins in Germany's spectacular 1936 Olympics -- orchestrated under the arrogant hand of Hitler -- not in the ancient Greek games. [See The Olympic Flame]
Effusive sentiments quoted after the opening ceremony were posted in an audio message on the official Olympic website: "Bringing the world together.... Uniting the countries together, that's the most important thing.... Celebrating world peace... that is the main thing."
World peace, unity, the evolution of human consciousness.... It all sounds so good, doesn't it?
It's supposed to sound good! It's all part of the marketing message of the Olympics as well as the United Nations. The two work hand-in-hand. Their rousing words and visions are designed to stir hearts, fire the imagination, establish a unifying vision, transform our values, and build global citizens for a new world order. The official Olympic website summarizes it well:
"In the ancient Olympic Games, a truce was declared so that what is good and ennobling in humankind would prevail. The Games today are the greatest celebration of humanity, an event of joy and optimism to which the whole world is invited to compete peacefully. Every four years, humanity celebrates, embraces and honors sport, and the world realizes the Olympic ideals of culture and peace."
An Associated Press story by Joseph Verrengia shows us another side. It compared the ancient games to a spirited blend of the Super Bowl, Woodstock, Mardi Gras and a sacred pilgrimage where sensuality and promiscuity reigned along with ambitious human schemes:
"The setting for the earliest Olympic Games some 3,000 years ago was both a sanctuary of soaring marble temples and a foul, drunken shantytown plagued by water shortages, campfire smoke and sewage. The athletes, glistening from olive oil, competed naked. Gymnasiums were restricted to keep the sex trade from overrunning events on the field....
"While the Olympics' 3,000-year history is dotted with the heroic champions... they also were plagued by cheating, scandal, gambling and outsize egos.
"'The ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as we represent them to be,' said David Gilman Romano...
"Sport, they believed, was a high tribute to the gods.... Before the games, athletes pledged their piety as they were paraded past a row of statues of gods and former champions that were paid for from the fines of disgraced cheaters. At the feet of a 40-foot statue of Zeus -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World -- they sacrificed oxen and boar and roasted hunks of the flesh in a sacred flame....
"The athletes would consult fortunetellers and magicians for victory charms and potions... as well as curses on their opponents to fail."
In other words, human nature hasn't changed through the centuries. Today's athletes face the same temptations as the heroes of antiquity. Whether in America, Asia, Europe, Africa or the Middle East, the same tendencies to lie and cheat in order to win continue to erode man's most noble intentions.
The Bible presents a more sobering reality -- one that history has validated in cultures around the world:
"Professing to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man.... Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator...
then, is the solution? If man's best intentions, loftiest visions and most
far-reaching organizations can't bring global peace and unity, what's our
Actually, if we set our hearts on a perfect world, we will always be disappointed -- as were many friends and followers of Jesus. They hoped He would free them from Rome and make them a powerful nation. Instead He offered heavenly strength for living triumphantly in a broken, hurting world. "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace," He told His disciples. "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
His mission was focused on a heavenly -- not an earthly -- kingdom. When questioned by Pontius Pilate whose faith in capricious gods and human prowess matched that of ancient Greece, Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world." John 18:36
While we can appreciate the commitment and achievements of many of the world's greatest athletes, it's good to remember that the pomp and presumptions of the global Olympic institution are contrary to God's way for His people. "Do not love the world or the things in the world," He tells us through John. "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world." 1 John 2:15-17
Instead, "our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior...." (Philippians 3:20) He is our hope -- and the immeasurable glory ahead far surpasses the grandest visions of the world's utopian dreamers! So "beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ." Colossians 2:6-9
2. The Olympic Hymn at http://www.nodice.ca/olympicanadiana/hymn.html
3. Lisa Orkin, "Kenteris, Thanou suspended," USA Today, 8/13/2004 at http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/athens/track/2004-08-13-greek-sprinters_x.htm
4. Michael Hiestand, "Athens Games begin with pageantry, drama, joy," USA Today, 8/13/2004 at http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/athens/2004-08-13-opening-ceremonies_x.htm
5. Ibid., The significance of that sea was mentioned in the song, "Oceania," sung by Icelandic pop singer, Bjork.
6. "The official website of the ATHENS 2004 Olympic Games - Games of the XXVIII Olympiad" at http://www.athens2004.com/en/Values
7. Joseph B. Verrengia, "Joseph B. Verrengia, "Ancient Olympics were a mix of sacred, profane," Associated Press, July 25, 2004.
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