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My Take: With Olympics, we yearn to be like gods
August 11th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Take: With Olympics, we yearn to be like gods

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.”

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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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: God • Opinion • Sports

soundoff (606 Responses)
  1. Tina

    "And yet when your God says its your time to go, the first person you call is a doctor, not a priest."

    Have you heard of Christian hospitals? Christians owns plenty of schools, hospitals, etc.
    Since 80% of Americans are Christians, therefore 80% of doctors are Christians more than likely, if not more.

    August 12, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Colin

      That's Christians doing science. Like astrologers looking through a telescope.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      So, one would expect a statistically (maybe even near miraculous) better outcome for patients with god on their side, right?

      August 12, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Check out the Templeton Prayer study ... the Templeton foundation is a religious foundation bent on proving religion ... their own study proved that prayer not only did nothing to help recovery after surgery but actually showed a higher incidence of complications when the patient knew they were being prayed for.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. Tina

    Fvck Science... Go Religion!

    August 12, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Colin

      Great. The next time you're sick, call a priest, not a doctor.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      As an Atheist, I concur! No more thinking for me. Highly overrated and stressful.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      ironic that you typed that on a computer and posted it on the internet.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Tina

      My local priest is a lawyer and professor... and another one is a doctor and became priest later in life.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Objective

      Colin, doctors basically guess when they diagnose anyway. Why do you think they make you go through all sorts of tests? They have no clue.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Colin

      Objectivity, there is a big difference between medical uncertainty and a pure guess.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      Doctors, they " have no clue". Really? What a flaming idiot.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      objective – there are so many tests because the body is a very complicated machine and there are a myriad of ailments that could affect it.

      not to mention the litigious society that we live in. many of the tests are simply to cover their a$$.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Tina, believing in imaginary beings is a sign of mental illness. You merely provided two cases of extreme mental illness, if not breaks from reality. You should be helping them get medical attention, not glorifying them.

      August 12, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  3. Colin

    It is easy for us, as sophisticated and secular people, to dismiss this thinking as the childish projections of a supersti.tious age.

    August 12, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      at least he was right about that.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      He could have just stopped right there, right? Pretty funny.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  4. BJL

    Mr. Laconte has it backwards: It is not 'noble' to want to be like God or 'be' God. It is hubris, undending idolatry of self and humanism to the extreme. The Olympic ideals make mankind 'god'...yes, the athletes often display great depth of character, overcoming great personal challenges, etc., and often give glory to their Maker but too often the 'party all night' and cry out loud to the press: "i'm the Best". The openings to the Games (remember Greece?) scream: we 'created' civilization....etc.

    Mankind loves itself far too much and it is pride that keeps us from acknowledging that any special gifts we have are 'gifts' from God Himself...and that HE deserves the praise and glory.

    August 12, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Trying to be god is pretty meaningless considered mankind created the concept of a god, hence we are the closest thing to a god that ever existed.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  5. !

    Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists are misguided and causes problem in our religious & public society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler (denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders who killed religious people because of their religious cult!
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most atheists are uneducated... No atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
    **Only 2-3% of the U.S. are atheists/agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**

    † † Our Prayers goes to atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †

    PS! the USA is a † nation and will always be. You know it's true and stop being ignorant and arrogant!
    (Take a look at our federal/state holidays, 99% of our presidents, blue laws in parts of the nation, the majority of people, some laws, calendar, culture, etc.)
    http://rightremedy.org/tracts/7/

    August 12, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      who came up with this hogwash?

      August 12, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      As an Atheist, I approve this message. Now, where did I put those baby-corpses... It's time for lunch.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      LOL Athiesm terrible for children ... they're ALL born Atheists until someone fills their heads with the local belief system.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Azhar

      And yet when your God says its your time to go, the first person you call is a doctor, not a priest. You turn on God and put your life in a mortals hand. You are denying Gods wish. GENIUS.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Who me?

      Dude ? What the heck is wrong with you? I hope you have no children,as they will undoubtedly grow to despise you..Seriously,get some help.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • fryuujin

      wow, talk about an unhealthy mindset. you got one big time. if you keep up your your hate sounds like you'll be the next mass murdering nut case we read about.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      that is so poorly written and nonsensical that it must be a troll trying to make christians look bad.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • smeeker

      @snowboarder – I don't know who came up with that BS but the same person keeps posting it all the time. Like you, I am sick of reading such nonsense. I am an atheist and consider myself a good, hardworking guy. I am not mean, nasty, or manipulative like the religious folks are. In times of need, people in the local tavern have helped me far more then any church ever did. I will add one funny observation as to why I mess going to church though. I got laid quite often by religious women when I was going to church. I can say this about them, it was quite awesome when they released all of that pent up frustration in bed.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • YeahRight

      Atheism is a religion that makes you stupid, ignorant & blind. -LIE
      Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated. -LIE
      Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists) -LIE
      Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle. -LIE
      Atheists causes problem in our religious society. -LIE
      Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith. -LIE
      Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise. -LIE
      Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders. -LIE
      No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider' -LIE
      Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime. -LIE
      Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet. -LIE
      Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people. -LIE
      Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved. -LIE
      Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency. -LIE
      Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history. -LIE
      Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists. -LIE
      All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals. -LIE
      The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20) -LIE
      Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism! -LIE

      It just goes to show that Christians can’t even follow one of the basic Ten Commandments by posting all these lies. What a hypocrite

      August 12, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  6. I love my hairy a$$

    Militan Atheists are worse than fundamentalist Muslims !

    August 12, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      militant atheists?

      i'm quite certain i have never heard of an atheist physically attacking someone over their religion in this country.

      the "militant" part is purely in your imagination.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      As an Atheist, I agree. Now where did I put that vest filled with C4?

      August 12, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      sn0wb0arder..yes the old "militant "atheist comment. It is just a response to the push back the religious are getting from those who ask for their proof, which they have so far been unable to do.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  7. Azhar

    Where did all the roman and Greek GODS go? ALLAH and JESUS must be real annoying GODS for the rest of GODS to move out heaven. Another Question, Why does everybody agree on who Satan is, but can't agree on who God is? Because it's all B.S.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  8. Rainer Braendlein

    No contest, but cooperation!

    Wikipedia: While there is no scholarly consensus when the Games (the ancient Olympic Games) officially ended, the most commonly held date is 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I decreed that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated.

    Obviously emperor Theodosius decreed the elimination of the ancient Olympic Games, because they were a pagan cult.

    Why are the Olympic Games pagan?

    Hypothesis: There are some morons which assume the whole life would merely be a competi-tion of all human beings, in order to pick out the bests. This resembles the theory of the survival of the fittest. Olympic Games are just a glorification of that way of life, and thus a satanic worship service.

    What is moronic about that or pagan?

    God has not structured the world in the way that all beings should contest with each other. The assumption the whole world would be a place of contest is absolutely moronic.

    What is the real structure of the world as the Lord, the eternal God, has predetermined it?

    The whole world is a big, organic body with very many limbs and organs which depend on each other. This is escpecially valid for the mankind. Would you want that your hands contest with each other? No! You want that your both hands colaborate so that they help you to lift a box for example. Limps and organs shall colaborate, in order to make possible the survival of every single limb and organ and the whole body.

    Everybody has certain gifts, and can contribute to the wealth of the whole mankind. One is a taylor, one is a carpenter, one is a scientist, one is an engineer, one is a cleaner, a gardener, a farmer, a physician, etc.. The more all the individuals get allowed to unfold their specific talents, the more the wealth of the mankind will increase, and every single need will be satisfied.

    St. Paul once refers to an athletic contest. Is this one of the many errors of the Bible? Never! St. Paul meant that Christians should conduct a perpetual struggle against the satanic struggle of the secular world. The evil germ in us always seeks for distinction, separation, being greater, stronger, richer, more honored, more powerful than the neighbour. It is even possible that we always emphasize the superiority of our faith, in order to make us higher than our neighbour.

    The real contest for everybody and especially for Christians is the fight against the evil germ in us. By birth we are inclined to seek for distinction and separation. This we shall overcome by Christ, into whom we are baptized. Day by day we should ask Christ to rule us, so that not our old, selfish man of sin may prevail but the Spirit of Christ which is a Spirit of love, unity and cooperation. Don't let us contest, but cooperate, and we will create a world of peace and wealth for everybody.

    At the latest when Christ returns this system of love and humble cooperation will be forced through. Accept that good system right now, not that you are found as an enemy of Christ at Judgement Day.

    Pleas note: Good Olympic Games = cooperation of all people, but no contest

    http://confessingchurch.wordpress.com

    August 12, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Lilith

      This is bordering on spam ...

      August 12, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      that is a long winded bunch of crazy.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  9. Thinker

    Militant atheists are just as bad as militant Christians. They treat atheism no different than the Christians they despise, while anyone with a brain could understand that neither position can be proven as correct.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      making no theological claims requires surprisingly little proof.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      The burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim, the religious believers. Besides that, it isn't about proof, it's about probability ... I don't need proof to know there ISN'T a purple Stegasaurus orbiting Pluto, it's just infinitely improbable. There are infinite things that I can claim without proof and that doesn't mean they are all equally "true".

      August 12, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      Unfortunately, you just demonstrated how utterly ignorant you are regarding the position that most atheists hold. And no, I will not correct you – it would be useless.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • AndyB

      There IS a purple Stegasaurus orbiting Pluto! And when I die, I'm going to go and live with him in a giant bouncy castle for ever and ever!! You won't!!

      August 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  10. sn0wb0arder

    people will go through some very interesting logical acrobatics to bring religion into everything.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Susan

      ...hmmmm....I thought this was a religious article.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      susan – it wasn't really a religious article until the author shoehorned religion into the last couple of paragraphs.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  11. chieatfetus

    did not like the opening ceremony.......there was TOO much detail going on. Bejing was better. Apparently a lot of people at my work agree.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Izoto

      Indeed

      August 12, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      The London opening was so much better than China's. China was not bad but when all of "details" came together in the London opening and that ring rose into the air it was awesome.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  12. MalcomR - No Ph.D

    My Take: Can I get a Ph.D for writing banal drivel such as this? Can I explain our "inconsolable secret"? Apes. Curious apes. Is it metaphysical for an intelligent species to indulge its curiosity (pun intended) and strive for a more prosperous state of affairs? Please, give me the address of that trailer in southern New Mexico so I can send them my 50 bucks for my Ph.D too.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  13. GOD PARTICLE UK Dave

    ON YOUR MARKS! GET SET! OOPS! OOPS! OOPS!

    I JUST FIXED EVERYTHING WITH VERY RAPID http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gNFkz23n50
    aka Youtube(Ready to cooperate yet?) 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    August 12, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  14. Wunk

    This guy is a moron

    August 12, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  15. Wunk

    This guy is an idiot

    August 12, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  16. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    If the Olympics have anything to do with religion it should be to remind us how foolish belief in Gods really is. History is filled with "false Gods" and we have no reason to think the current this current batch of God offerings are any different. Future generations will laugh at us the same way we chuckle at the Greeks belief in their batch of deities.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Spijder

      Why would we laugh at anything about the development of human society? You might as well laugh at the fact that our ancestors once had no microwave ovens or digital television, or just laugh at every step humanity has ever taken just because it's so ugh silly and primitive. If those societies in human history hadn't been so very laughable to you, we might not be as far progressed societally now and you would be the 'laughable' one sitting in a world that hadn't yet realized that at the top of Mount Olympus is just a mountaintop. We owe history too much to laugh at it.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  17. sn0wb0arder

    it was a decent article until he started into the religious BS.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • John

      Yes, I agree with the religious crap. I'm out of here, off to church now.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • oneSTARman

      You Do KNOW This Is The BELIEF Page Right? Not Interested in Religious Thought? Go to the Atheists Corner if you wish.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • MalcomR - No Ph.D

      The internet IS the atheists corner!

      August 12, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Mr. oneSTARman ... just where would the Atheist corner be located? Actually, most of us are very interested in religious thought, it's very entertaining, shocking and mind boggling to us.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Rob

      @ oneSTARman

      Now just who the f*** are you? Religion is garbage. And I'll say it right here, right now. What part of that causes you concern?
      As far as I'm concerned, you can go FY.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  18. oneSTARman

    VENUS and MARS were Magic People that lived on Mount Olympus. Some people STILL think about GOD like that. This is an image that is a REFLECTION of Man – PETTY and SELFISH – prone to Violence and Jealousy. This is a very SMALL idea of what; The ONE who brought the Universe into Being, for a Purpose that WE are TOO SMALL to grasp is All About. It is this PETTY Christianity – NOTHING like The WAY that The Christ taught to his Disciples – That AMERICANS mix-up with FLAG and BIGOTRY.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  19. dubrats

    my take is....it's all about the almighty $$ these days....

    August 12, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  20. William

    Some of us have a different take on the Olympics. Mine would be to quote P. T. Barnum–"There's a sucker born every minute."

    August 12, 2012 at 9:21 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.