The world has its full attention turned toward London this summer. The Olympic Games are one of the few events in the modern world that can bring the people and nations of the world together for a couple of weeks every four years. As feuding nations set aside their differences and march together in the name of the “Olympic spirit,” there is a strong sense of unity and cooperation promoted by the games. Over the last century, the Olympics have developed into one of the most recognizable and popular events in the world. While the competition is the focus, the origin and symbolism of the games has its own story. Understanding how the Olympic games became what they are today will hopefully better equip the child of God to recognize those things that are of the world and those that are of God.
During the games, we see symbols of the Olympics everywhere. The famous rings are on Coke cans, Big Macs, and Visa advertisements that will no doubt be “everywhere you want to be.” In fact, it is unlikely that any of us, no matter where we might be located, (especially our friends in the United Kingdom), will be able to escape the deluge of media coverage of the Olympic games. Internet and TV advertisements will be saturated by promotions from sponsors. In addition, news coverage on the internet and TV is also focused on the Olympics. News reporters from around the world flock to London to provide up to the minute updates at a moment’s notice.
The immense coverage of the Olympics is a response to their worldwide popularity. Over 10,000 athletes from roughly 200 nations journey to compete at the one of the world’s premier athletic competitions, and the people of the world want to follow their hometown heroes closely. As the athletes compete, even people who have not watched a single sporting event throughout the year are drawn to watch the competition. There is undoubtedly something unique about the Olympics that can capture people’s attention like few other events in the world.
The excitement of the competition is one aspect of the Olympics, but a closer look at the history of the Games adds some important perspective to the events that we are presently seeing in London. The modern Olympic Games were started by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. Since then the Olympics have continued every four years with a few breaks for the two world wars, acts of terrorism, countless boycotts, and scandals of various forms.
Coubertin had many reasons for reviving a modified version of the Games of the ancient Greeks. One of the reasons was quite simply that sports were falling apart in certain ways. As athletics spread around the world, different areas adapted the sports to their own cultures and traditions. North Americans played soccer differently from South Americans. The Scottish played differently from the English. The differences can lead to interesting confrontations. For example, in 1874 Harvard University traveled to McGill University in Montreal to a series of football games, but Harvard came ready to play a variation of what we (Americans) call soccer, while McGill played something closer to rugby. The two sides played half the games with each set of rules, but it is easy to see how different sets of rules can cause a big problem. With the Olympics, Coubertin hoped that he could create a standard set of rules for athletics around the globe, which would help preserve athletics for generations to come.
According to Olympic historian Allen Guttmann, another thing that Coubertin had in mind for the Olympics was that the games would be able to transcend the many conflicts of the world, whether political or religious. With this in mind, Coubertin wanted to use the games to encourage international cooperation among people of all nations. As his own vision of the Olympics evolved, Coubertin was “increasingly drawn to the humanistic vision of a peaceful world.” For over a century, the modern Olympics have done much for peaceful cooperation among nations around the world, although for every success story there have been numerous conflicts. Despite the best efforts of men to live a peaceful world, God uses many different means to keep the nations of the world in conflict until all things are accomplished. That day will not arrive because of any peacemaking efforts of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) or other groups, but only because God’s time has arrived for the world to be judged.
Because Coubertin desired the Olympics to be free from religious and political involvement, the Olympics started to take the shape of a religion in itself – some have even called it a civil religion. One of the main ways in which this religious ambition can be observed is through the way in which the “Olympic spirit” is portrayed, especially in the opening and closing ceremonies. The ceremonies are the most visible showcases of the Olympic spirit and the religious symbolism in the Games. Dramatic shows such as the one in Beijing in 2008 have taken these ceremonies to an entirely new level. The Olympic flag, the marching of all the nations together, and the lighting of the torch all hold significance. Add the singing, dancing, chanting, and rituals, and the ceremonies have a distinctly religious (more cult-like) feel. Every Christian ought to take notice that the emphasis of the Olympic spirit contains nothing relating to God or Jesus Christ. As a result, all of the best efforts and admirable goals are made worthless by that ignorance of the Lord.
Coubertin and his successors have always viewed Olympics as being above all political and religious debate. The leaders of the Olympics have stubbornly held this high view, even though political feuds have always been a part of the Olympic Games through boycotts, protests, and terrorism. When eleven Israeli hostages were murdered at the 1972 Munich Games, IOC President Avery Brundage pushed the games ahead. His actions may have been seen as inconsiderate, but he was simply promoting his opinion that political and religious conflict could not affect the Olympics because they should remain above those conflicts.
Moreover, Coubertin and his successors have also tried to maintain some sort of connection to the ancient Olympic games of the Greeks (and consequently, the Greeks’ pagan religion). When the Olympic torch begins its relay around the world, it is lit in Athens by actresses playing the role of pagan priestesses. Coubertin was so infatuated with the Greeks that in his will he requested that his heart be buried near the ruins of ancient Olympia in Greece. This is just one more characteristics of the Olympics that ought to catch the attention of the children of God and that ought to encourage us to discern the true merits of the Olympic Spirit.
So, as the Games carry on in London, what does all this mean for us today?
As you take in the Olympics – especially the opening and closing ceremonies, keep in mind 1 John 4:1–3, which commands the people of God to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God… Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist…even now already is it in the world.” Because the Olympics have no confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we know with certainty that the Olympic spirit contains the spirit of antichrist.
Take note that I am not suggesting that we avoid the Olympic Games altogether and shun them as a false religion. Nor am I suggesting that the IOC or anyone associated with the Olympics has an agenda to push the world toward a pagan, civil religion.
Enjoy the Olympics as a world-class athletic competition! Support your country. Admire the incredible athletic abilities on display. Feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Cheer for the underdog or the hometown favorite. Recognize the God-given talents of all those involved in the Olympics.
But, at the same time, beware of the subliminal messages sent out by those promoting the Olympic spirit or the Olympic movement. Those pursuits will not bear fruit because they are not of Jesus Christ. The problems of this world will not be solved by nations cooperating and interacting through a sporting event; this will happen only in God’s time and in God’s way. Knowing the background of the Olympics and the desires behind some of the symbols and rituals, the people of God should take care to discern the difference between those things that come from God and those that do not.
 David Miller, Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, 1894-2004. (London: Mainstream Publishing Company, 2003); Pierre De Coubertin et al., The Olympic Games in 1896: Second Part, (London: H. Grevel and Co., 1897).
 “THIS DATE IN HISTORY: First football game was May 14, 1874,” McGill University, 14 May 2012 <http://www.mcgill.ca/athletics>.
 Allen Guttmann, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
 Guttmann, 11.