I encountered an interesting blog post today called “Olympic Ritual and Religion, hosted by a Religion-less State.” The article begins by pointing out that “Religion-less” China didn’t hold back when evoking the “implicit religious sentiments” of the Olympic Games in the Beijing Opening Ceremonies (perhaps the article’s author might be interested in hearing our recent program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities”). The part I found most interesting was focused on Pierre de Coubertin, who is credited as the founder of the modern Olympic Games:

As a French Catholic who never felt the need to leave the practices of faith, Coubertin was powerfully aware of the power of ritual and liturgical form. In one of his most insightful moments, he insisted that without the “ritual frame” provided by the Opening and Closing ceremonies, the Modern Olympic Games would simply become another set of World Championships—and the world already had enough of those. What it did not have enough of was religion, religion as a ritual practice, and that is what his version of modern “ambulatory” Olympics (a new city and host country, every time) were designed to provide.

(Photo: ♥ China ♥ guccio/Flickr)


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8Reflections

Reflections

The olympics is politics and the ability of the host country to market itself. Maybe Hitler was trying to religiousize his state in 1936, but that is not the case in our day. The fans that watch the olympics are not interested in the opening ceremonies - like governments, the best ones are the ones that don't exist at all. Anyone who spends time watching the opening ceremonies might as well be reading one of those advertising supplements that appear in certain sections of the daily newspaper placed by third world nations. The real religious aspect of the olympics - and of any sporting event on any level - is the striving (and sometime succeeding) of people to go past their limitations.

Perhaps the true limitation is the ego, the perception of separateness. I recently watched a video of the men's 4x400 relay at the '68 Games and the American team was so far ahead of the field that I saw only a man running, not against other men, but against the clock, against time, but not just a man, it was four men running as one and their baton exchanges were flawless, not one looked back, he started his leg and trusted his team mate to reach to his outstretched hand. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. I felt an expression of the deepest longing of the heart...to feel a 'part of' a greater whole. Even the 'political' demonstration from the victory stand was the voice of an entire people crying out silently through two men, and they paid a heavy price for giving expression to that voice. The ritual of the opening ceremony might serve us as a time of preparation, like the athlete prepares for the event, and the closing ceremony as a pause of reflection and thanksgiving, so that we might carry with us some spark of fellowship as we return to 'the world'.
It is a spiritual axiom that what I turn my attention to, increases. If I don't seek to find the ritual, ..... gee, I thought those NBC cameras were gonna get right up the American men gymnast's ___es! What about showing a little respect? No, the sponsors... You see what I mean, Adam? If I rode to work with you every day, what would you rather have me paying attention to?

Some interesting comments ... I find myself asking the question "what would de Coubertin have thought of the Beijing opening ceremonies?" Would he see it as a continuation of his vision, or as a corrupted version of it? It's not that difficult for me to see the current incarnation of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies as just a nationalistic advertisement sponsored by the hosting nation, but perhaps the valuable ritual elements are still embedded in that advertisement in a way that still makes the whole thing worthwhile...

Interesting comments from below. As a Chinese Canadian who is acquainted with recent Chinese sentiments, the reverse opinion holds true for quite a few - they loved the opening ceremonies and despised the closing ceremonies NOT for its propaganda's sake, but for the fact that their religious identity is mentioned - an occurance that has become rare in the increasingly cosmopolitan (and Westernized) society. It seems for the Chinese that all that is left of the image of the people are tainted goods and lack of religiosity - or to be precise, the increasing lack of a distinct ethnic image, as the government attempts to blur the 56 ethnicities' past conflicts but end up destroying the heritage and tradition in its natural context instead.

Just I get impression to see "Ritual Frame"! What a design and colorful regulation display here. It looks really eye catching and beautiful. I like this post. Thanks! :)

One of the little remarked aspects of the Modern Olympic Games is its explicit status as a religious revival. The founder, or “renovateur,” of the Modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, could not have been clearer about the religious valence of his revival. Not long after he first proposed the renewal of the ancient Greek games in modern international guise, he began referring to them as the religio athletae, though he was never able to say in any simple way who the god worshiped at the altar of his revival was supposed to be.

The Olympics of 2008 were okay in my opinion, though I have little memory of it, I agree, it did lack the atmosphere and mysticism of say London 2012. Though I'm not to sure about this ritual frame, it's significance and how it's the symbol of this old event.

As a French Catholic who never felt the need to leave the practices of faith, Coubertin was powerfully aware of the power of ritual and liturgical form. In one of his most insightful moments, he insisted that without the “ritual frame” provided by the Opening and Closing ceremonies, the Modern Olympic Games would simply become another set of World Championships—and the world already had enough of those.