Peace Through Sport and Religio Athletae: Antiquated Ideas or Viable Options?

Eight months ago, it seemed that the world rushed to embrace the “new millennium”, the dawn of a new era. This is understandable when viewed in the global context of the previous century. Two world wars, countless civil wars, the Cold War and attendant social and political unrest overshadowed many of the remarkable advances in science and technology. The Olympic movement was not immune from the political and social problems in the twentieth century and ultimately became a microcosm of global politics. As the dawn of the new millennium approached, many people reflected on past events and envisioned a new world, dare I say a New World Order, where peace, progress, character development and prosperity would become a reality and not simply a dream. This vision was not a new one. Early guardians of the modern Olympic Games such as Pierre de Coubertin, William Sloane, Jules Simon, and Fredrick Le Play must have shared this same optimism and hope for a renewal of moral character and a lasting peace as they rang in 1900. How could they have known that the twentieth century would be among the most tumultuous and deadly periods in the history of the human race? The turmoil of the early part of the last century had a profound impact on Coubertin. He became a tireless crusader for peace and social change. The question that begs asking is to what extent will the new leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continue Coubertin’s Crusade for peace and social change via sport?

The great philosopher George Santayana noted that “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness… Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Will the leadership of the Olympic Movement heed the eloquent words of Santayana relative to lessons lessons learned in the twentieth century or will the same mistakes be made again? A promising first step was taken in 2000 when the IOC and the Hellenic Olympic Committee established the International Olympic Truce Center in Athens.

The new millennium provides an opportunity for the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Movement to undergo a renaissance. A renaissance that once again reaffirms the belief in the utility of sport as a tool for peace and international understanding; not just in words but in deeds! In addition, the renaissance of sport can recapture the belief and practice when sport was a means of developing moral character instead of producing the “characters” that many contemporary athletes represent today.

World peace and prosperity for all is not a utopian dream but a moral obligation that we all must work to achieve. The Cold War approach to securing peace and harmony through military power by default engenders threats and conflict. We have no illusions about the necessity for strong national defense. There exist political and religious doctrines that reflect agendas that promote violence to achieve end results and we must defend ourselves and others against this threat. The horrific attacks of September are a somber reminder of this fact.

During Coubertin’s formative years, he supported a strong military to defend his beloved country. While this never changed, We believe he also envisioned an alternative to military might as a means to secure peace and social advancement. Could Olympism develop a credible doctrine that would serve to promote peace and international understanding? Could the splendor and worldwide appeal of the Olympic Games succeed in the diplomatic arena where others had failed relative to resolving conflicts? Could athletes deliver messages of peace and goodwill to competing nations more effectively than career politicians? Ever the romantic, Coubertin believed in “Peace Through Sport”. As a statesman, Coubertin sought to employ sport as an effective diplomatic tool that would bring people together and ultimately contribute to world peace.

Although Coubertin did not live to see his ideology succeed, perhaps the new millennium will provide the Olympic Movement with another opportunity to believe in the utility of “Peace Through Sport”. It is important to note that while Coubertin worked to bring about world peace he was not a pacifist. He, like the rest of France, wanted a powerful military in place to prevent another disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Germans or anybody else for that matter. However, Coubertin was well connected with individuals in the international peace movement during his time in Paris.

The Paris of the 1880’s was an international center for pacifists and the Peace Movement. Coubertin undoubtedly had contact with leading figures in this movement. Quanz believes, “pacifists provided an important impact on Coubertin’s plan to establish modern athletic contests within the milieu of major international exhibition.”(Quanz, 1993) In fact, Quanz notes, “Coubertin… consistently stressed the dual character of the Games, setting his philosophical tone in place when he dedicated the 1896 Games to both patriotism and world peace.”(p. 2) He maintains that pacifist philosophy was an important element in Coubertin’s plan to establish the modern Olympic Games, citing the list of individuals invited to the Congress at the Sorbonne and saying “there is little doubt that a definite contemporary ‘peace patronage’ was present at the Sorbonne proceedings.”(p. 4) But Quanz refrains “from boldly pronouncing a “pacifistic derivation theory” for Coubertin’s Olympic project, largely because there appears in the Baron’s scheme an independent interpretation of modern sport, namely, its reformation in the context of educational potential.”(p. 3)

While Coubertin had many friends within the peace movement and manipulated these relationships to his advantage in promoting the Games, his ideas concerning Olympic sport and internationalism should not be viewed as an attempt at pacifism. MacAloon notes, “Coubertin was not so much against war as for peace, and…he wanted a strong army worthy of domestic and foreign respect and capable of ensuring against another 1870.”(McAloon, 1981) To suggest that the International Committee for the Olympic Games was an extension of the International Peace Bureau would be a mistake. It seems Coubertin’s “internationalism” was multifaceted and incorporated notions of peace, patriotism, international cooperation, and serious athletic competition. Coubertin was a patriot who believed in the necessity of a strong national defense. He also believed and worked to achieve “Peace Through Sport”. Who says you can’t have it both ways?

The creation of the Olympic Truce Center is a positive step. We must not simply hope that the efforts of the Truce Center are successful, we must all work to insure its success. As Santayana notes, those who forget history are bound to repeat it. In the last century, the effort to maintain a lasting peace was a failure. The Olympic Games were cancelled because of World War I and World War II. The impact of the Cold War immersed the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games in nasty politics that nearly extinguished the Olympic flame. The Olympic Movement has much to gain, as we all do, in maximizing efforts to achieve peace. History has demonstrated that the Olympic Games, and all of us, have much to lose without a lasting peace.

The development of moral character and attendant decorum was a critical component of Coubertin’s Olympism. This concept is embodied, to a degree, in his idea of Religio Athletae. Coubertin’s idea was in part, an attempt to recapture what he believed to be the noble and virtuous qualities of sport that were present in Ancient Greece. These were timeless ideas and practices that would help him establish a stronger foundation for sport to cultivate proper moral character. As we shall see, although his concept of Religio Athletae suggests theological implications, it does not meet the criteria for this.

In his Olympic Memoirs, Coubertin (1931) states that sports were “a religion with its church, dogmas, service…but above all a religious feeling.” Two years before his death, in a 1935 radio address, Coubertin (1935) acknowledged:

The first essential characteristic of ancient and of modern OLYMPISM alike is that of being a religion…I therefore think I was right to recreate from the outset, around the renewed OLYMPISM, a religious sentiment transformed and widened by the Internationalism and Democracy which distinguish the present age, but still the same as that which led the young Greeks, ambitious for the triumph of their muscles, to the foot of the altars of ZEUS. The ideal of a religion of sport, the religio athletae, was very slow to penetrate the minds of competitors, and many of them still practice it only in an unconscious way. But they will come round to it little by little.

Coubertin’s first use of the term religio athletae came in a short article (1928). In it he outlines the best means for protecting his modern Games from the “excess that corrupted and ruined ancient athletics.”(p.6) Coubertin’s ideal for sport involved a world where “each young man possesses sufficient taste for athletic exercises to make him practice them regularly…seeking in wholesome sports an admirable means to perfect his health and increase his strength.”(p. 5) He admitted this was unrealistic and that a “system of organized competition” would need to take its place. But this sort of competition would inevitably lead to corruption. Therefore a “regulator,” such as the Greeks found in Olympia, would need to be incorporated into the modern Games. Coubertin alluded to the Ancient Olympics and the “spirit of almost religious reverence” with which the young men approached them. For Coubertin, this reverence was derived not from “sacrificing solemnly before the altar of ZEUS,” but from “taking an oath of honor and disinterest, and above all in striving to keep it.”(Coubertin, reprinted in 1967, p. 6). Thus, Coubertin sought to protect the sanctity of his modern Olympics by incorporating a similar oath into their opening ceremonies. It was precisely this religious ritual of athletic competition that the Baron was seeking to promote in his Olympism.

There remains then the deeper question of what Coubertin meant by labeling Olympism as a religion. Did he in fact suggest that this Olympic philosophy could assume the role of a religion? Or might this be another example of the Baron’s idealism, an attempt at promoting Olympism by invoking the Greek’s conception of the religious nature of sport as honoring the gods? Nissiotis (1986) provides insightful criticism concerning these questions. He takes Coubertin’s understanding of the relationship between Greek sport and religion to task:

He [Coubertin] committed an error, if I may use that expression, by confusing the sacred-the sacredness of the human act when it transcends itself, reaching for the infinite and absolutely transcendental divine-and the sacredness which the Greeks understood by “ieros”, that is the separate, that which confronts us, outside ourselves…For the ancient Greeks, there was an enormous difference between sport which honoured the gods, and sport seen as a god, sport as a “religion.” (p. 168)

Coubertin may not have anticipated the ramifications of this overzealous mistake, but they can be seen in the words of some of his successors, including former president of the IOC Avery Brundage (1964), when he proclaims, “It is a 20th Century religion which Coubertin founded in the Olympic Movement, a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion, attractive to Youth, and we of the International Olympic Committee are its disciples.”(p. 2) Would Coubertin have endorsed this pronouncement of OLYMPISM as a “20th Century religion?” If not, what would cause Coubertin to risk labeling sport as a religion?

Nissiotis (1986) suggests that Coubertin was motivated by:

An unbound enthusiasm in a secularised era, characterised by the absence of the gods…he wanted, through sport, to keep young people looking towards the infinite, that which is dazzling and gives to life its supreme spiritual meaning. He wanted modern youth, thus armed, to be able to go beyond the mechanics and sciences of the modern era, re-establishing religion in a realistic dimension.(pp. 168-169)

The Europe of Coubertin’s era was undergoing a rapid transformation in philosophical and religious thought. Secularism and a kind of scientific positivism were rapidly replacing the Christian God of traditional European culture. Coubertin sensed this spiritual vacuum left by the removal of the divine. Thus to the youth of the world he offered:

Olympism as religion, a serious appeal to take with complete devotion its humanist principles impregnated with Greek philosophy and Christian faith, above all kinds of dogmatic absolutism against other social beliefs and conditions. OLYMPISM in the service of peace, democracy and internationalism, and of the moral transformation of man, giving him a dignified character, regenerating him by the achievement of equilibrium between body and mind, through athleticism in its Olympic sense.(Nissiotis, 1996, pp. 76-77).

Also critical to Coubertin’s religious approach to Olympism was the idea of “mutual respect.” By respecting differences between various creeds, young people might “re-establish religion in a realistic dimension,” the dimension of competitive athletics on an international level. Both Nissiotis (1973) and Professor Liselott Diem emphasize this attempt of Coubertin at transcending religious dogmatism: In order to respect one another, we should know one another. The ignorance of the Catholic for the Protestant can only be compared to the ignorance of the latter for the orthodox. No one tries to know what a Baptist thinks, or a Methodist, a learned Moslem or an open-minded Buddhist. The Mentality of Israelis, Hindous [sic], Shintoists are not studied. It is much more important to know these things than to know the age of the pithecanthropus or the carcass of the diplodocus. Because this is life itself, today’s life, the deep life of man.(Coubertin, 1908)

It is especially in the religious examination of Olympism  that Coubertin’s lifelong idealism and his ever-present concern for educating youth emerge.

The exact relationship between Olympism and religion remains problematic. It is tempting to presume Coubertin sought to establish a new world-religion in Olympism. His writings fail to explain precisely what he meant by sport in the religious sense. The terminology used by the Baron has lead to confusion within the Olympic community as well as suspicion from outside religious organizations. However, it seems most likely that, in his idealism, Coubertin sought not to establish Olympism as a religion in the traditional sense, but to infuse it with religious meaning and demand a religious commitment to this philosophy of moral education, international peace, artistic beauty and physical effort. In this philosophy we see an appeal to the transcendent, religious nature of sport joined with the concept of mutual respect among peoples in an effort to educate youth and promote peace on an international level.

Was Coubertin’s belief in “Peace Through Sport” a utopian dream or a viable diplomatic option that, until now, has been largely ignored? Have the qualities and characteristics that reflect Coubertin’s Religio Athletae become antiquated and outdated or do might they still have a place in the new millennium? Will there be a renaissance of sport in the new millennium where the development of moral character will become important or will this concept, sport as a means of character development, be assigned to the dust bin of history? Only time will tell.

References

Brundage, Avery (June, 1964). “Baron Pierre de Coubertin,” from Text for the Plaquette Lexueuse Celebration 70th Anniversary of Revival of Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Sorbonne, J, p. 2.

Coubertin, Pierre de.(1931) Olympic Memoirs. Text originally published by the Bureau international de pedagogie sportive in 1931, then reprinted by the International Olympic Committee in 1976, 1979, and 1989, Lausanne, 115.

Coubertin, Pierre de. (1935) The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism, Reprinted in The Olympic Idea. Hofmann, 1967, p. 133

Coubertin, Pierre de (1928)  du Bureau International de Pedagogi Sportive 1, 1928, pp. 5-6.Pierre de. “Religio Athletae,” Bulletin

MacAloon, John J. (1981) This Great Symbol. Pierre de Coubertin and The Origins of The Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nissiotis, Nikolaos (March, 1986). Pierre de Coubertin’s Relevance from the Philosophical Point of View and the problem of the “religio athletae, abstract from: “L’ACTUALITE DE PIERRE COUBERTIN DU POINT DE VUE PHILOSOPHIQUE et le probleme de la “religio athletae”, presented at the Symposium: The Relevance of Coubertin Today,” Lausanne, 18-20 March, 1986, pp. 125-178.

Quanz, Dietrich R (1993). “Civic Pacifism and Sports-Based Internationalism: Framework for the Founding of the International Olympic Committee.” Olympika, Vol. 2, 1-23.

 

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