August 11th, 2012
11:00 PM ET
Editor's Note: Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.
By Joseph Loconte, Special to CNN
(CNN) The ancient Greeks, especially the frugal Spartans, would probably balk at the commercialism that saturates our modern Olympic Games. And it’s doubtful that either badminton or beach volleyball would satisfy their appetite for blood-and-guts competition.
Yet we share something with the Greeks every time we assemble for this great athletic contest: a desire to transcend the politics of the moment and reach beyond the ordinary limits of human achievement. That desire has been on full display during the London Summer Games.
Begun in 776 BC, the Olympic Games soon became so important to Greek life that conflicts between participating Greek city-states, which were constantly squabbling with one another, would be suspended until after the games. The great historian Thucydides described one such scene in his classic history of the Peloponnesian War.
“The whole gathering at the festival was terrified that the Spartans might arrive under arms…and it was thought that there would be a crisis,” he wrote. “The Spartans, though, fell quiet and let the festival pass without incident.”
So, too, today, as nations put aside their political differences to compete in London. Why? And what makes us interrupt our daily routines to join this provocative world of triumph and tragedy?
Surely it’s not merely to see records shattered, which happened plenty this year, including Michael Phelps’ record for the most number of medals won by a single athlete.
The competitors who capture our hearts are those who achieve greatness because of their sacrifice, humility, and what the Greeks called arête, or heroic courage. No Greek Olympian achieved honor either by shrinking from adversity or by feeding his personal vanity. Then and now, glory seems the proper reward for the Olympian who embodies the classical virtues.
Think of the triumph of American sprinter Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Nazi Germany, deep in the grip of racist ideology, directed its hatreds not only at Jews, but at all non-Aryans. Imagine the shock to Nazi Party elites when a black American, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, stared down fascist propaganda, bested his rivals and took home four gold medals.
Hitler was furious, but tens of thousands of ordinary Germans at the stadium that day cheered him on.
Although just a boy at the time, I remember how a 17-year-old Russian gymnast named Olga Korbut captured the world’s affections at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Cold War tensions were simmering, but the “sparrow from Minsk” enthralled the West not only with raw talent, but with charisma, innocence and contagious joy.
Olga Korbut almost singlehandedly shattered the Western stereotype of the Soviets as stoic, unfeeling automatons.
Or think of Manteo Mitchell, the American sprinter in London last week who said he was just “doing my job” when he completed a 400-meter relay knowing he had broken his leg long before the finish line. He couldn’t bear the thought of letting his teammates down; he soldiered on. “The only way he would have stopped,” said Coach Danny Williamson, “is if the leg had fallen off.”
This is why the Olympic Games retain such a powerful hold on our moral imagination: We get to see what human nature is capable of in its nobler moments. We witness something so remarkable that it shakes us loose from our preoccupations and prejudices.
Such moments reveal what Christian writer C.S. Lewis called “our inconsolable secret,” our universal longing to bridge a gulf between our ordinary lives and this extraordinary life set before us.
What is this longing, this nostalgia for a world that exists outside of our actual experience?
Recall that the original Olympics were awash in religious imagery. The games were dedicated to Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods. Priests were on hand at every event, offering sacrifices and benedictions. Victory wreaths were made from olive trees, considered sacred.
In the minds of the Greeks, the heights of human achievement were somehow linked to the divine: when athletes won glory, they stood in the presence of the gods.
It is easy for us, as sophisticated and secular people, to dismiss this thinking as the childish projections of a superstitious age. But perhaps the Greeks were onto something.
Perhaps, in all their striving, they revealed a stubborn truth about the human predicament. For there seems to be something common to societies and civilizations everywhere, lodged in our DNA, that reaches anxiously for another world: a community defined by strength, courage, justice, and love.
As Plato described it in The Republic: “The city we have founded, if we have built rightly, will be good in the fullest sense of the word.”
The Olympic Games help awaken in us the desire for this city, what Christian thinkers such as Augustine called “the city of God.” In the Christian story, the tragedy of the human condition is that each of us is forced to live outside of this celestial home.
We are cut off from the grace and beauty and love of God. We may view his city from afar, but we cannot enter. We may think we belong there, but we are treated as strangers.
This sense of alienation and longing is hinted at in other religious traditions: in Buddhism’s attempt to escape the cycle of suffering, for example, or in Islam’s description of paradise, where the righteous “shall have all that they desire.” Each admits that something has gone terribly wrong in our world.
In the Christian hope, man’s tragic plight is overcome by God himself. We are given a promise that God would take on human frailty and make a way back to his sacred city. “I will bring them back to this land,” God announced through the prophet Jeremiah. “They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
Is it possible that every time we rise to applaud our Olympic champions, we anticipate this final homecoming?
If so, then Olympic glory is a faint picture of divine glory: to be welcomed back into the heart of God, accepted, approved, honored and blessed.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph Loconte.
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