Sport or Religion?

Sport has pre-Christian origins and belongs to ancient Greek culture. Along with theater, philosophy and the systems of polis management, sport and especially the Olympic Games was one of the characteristic features of the Greek civilization. It was there that it received its greatest development and the form in which it is known to us today.

The Greek interpretation of sport was based on the idea of a game. That is why the competitions themselves were called games. Also, theater performance was called a game, in which, as well as in sports, poets—creators of tragedies and comedies—competed with each other. The concept of play has a close connection with the very foundations of culture, as Johan Huizinga shows in his famous book Homo Ludens. The main thing here is to draw the line between serious involvement in the contemplation of confrontation or competition, as well as in the fabric of a dramatic work (if we talk about theater) and the conventional nature of such confrontation. Sport and theater, and play as such, presuppose distance. That is why there was no Ares, the god of war, among the Greek patron gods of the Olympic Games. This is the meaning of the game—it is a battle, but not a real, conventional battle, not crossing a certain critical line. Just as theater only depicts the action, so sport only depicts the real battle. Culture is born precisely from the realization of this boundary. When society internalizes it, it acquires the capacity for subtle distinctions in the realm of emotions, feelings, and ethical experiences. Sports and theater bring enjoyment precisely because, despite the dramatic nature of what is happening, the observer (spectator) retains a distance from the events taking place. It is this distance that forms a full-fledged citizen capable of strictly separating the seriousness of war from the conventionality of other types of competition. Therefore, for the duration of the Olympic Games, Greek city-states that were often at enmity with each other concluded a truce (έκεχειρία). It was at the time of these games that the Greeks realized their unity on the other side of the political contradictions between the individual polis. In this way the different things in sport were united through the recognition of the legitimacy of distance.

In the Christian era, sporting events in the Hellenistic world gradually disappeared because Christianity offered a completely different model of culture and unification of people. Everything was serious here, and the ultimate authority was the universal Church itself, in which people and nations were united. It was she who carried peace and the greatest possible distance—the distance between earth and heaven, mankind and God. In the face of the universal mission of the Savior, the differences between peoples (“Jews and Hellenes”) receded into the background. This is probably why sports (as well as the theater) lost their significance.

The revival of sport begins in the 19th century under completely new conditions. It is interesting to note that while the theater as part of the culture of Antiquity reappears at the very beginning of the Renaissance, it took several more centuries to revive the Olympic Games. This was probably hindered by some of the aesthetic aspects of sport as such, which contrasted sharply with Christian notions of what constitutes decent behavior. It is indicative that in Germany the founder of the sports movement was a convinced pagan and extreme nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 – 1852), who perceived the sports and gymnastic movement as a basis for spreading the ideas of German unification among the youth, which became the basis of the sports ideology. Jan was a fierce apologist of Germanic antiquity and advocated the revival of the runes. In the twentieth century, Jahn’s ideas continued to develop both in the context of Pan-Germanism and in the Wandervogel youth movement, and in particular had a great influence on National Socialism.

Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Olympic movement, was also a nationalist (in a sense, a racist). The involvement of Greeks, who were then in a state of national struggle with the Ottoman Empire, was also part of the overall strategy of European powers in transforming the geopolitical balance of power. At the same time, European Freemasonry, although fundamentally atheistic, was also very attentive to it, but not alien to a certain “pagan” aesthetics.

In general, it turns out that sport, originally a non-Christian cultural phenomenon, disappeared during the Christian Middle Ages and returned to Europe in a post-Christian and even partly anti-Christian context.

This raises with new urgency the problem: is sport compatible with Christianity at all? Can the passions, aesthetics, and rules of the game evoked by sport be combined with a Christian worldview? Of course, this question is a particular case of a more fundamental problem: is Christianity compatible with the modern world in general, built in general—and not just, of course, sports—on the foundations of desacralization, materialism, evolutionism, secularism, and atheism? Obviously, it is not possible to answer this question unequivocally, but it is appropriate to pose it, if only to start a cycle of meaningful discussions. Such discussions could help us to understand more fully in new contexts what sport is and, much more importantly, what Christianity is.

Alexander Dugin is a widely-known and influential Russian philosopher. His most famous work is The Fourth Political Theory (a book banned by major book retailers), in which he proposes a new polity, one that transcends liberal democracy, Marxism and fascism. He has also introduced and developed the idea of Eurasianism, rooted in traditionalism. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.

Featured: Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child, by Hieronymus Bosch; painted ca. 1500.