Olympic Ritual and Religion, Hosted by a Religion-less State

Item One: The Chinese Communist regime has had a relatively poor record where human rights are concerned, especially those rights regarding the free exercise of religious belief.

Item Two: Beginning on Friday evening, 8/8/08, the same government in Beijing began hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, giving explicit voice to the implicit religious sentiments of those Games.

Item Three: The most expensive ticket, and the hardest one to come by at the Modern Olympics, is a ticket to the Opening Ceremonies, where precisely nothing of athletic note happens at all.

I would like to connect those three observations, with the Opening ceremonies of the XIXth Olympiad in mind.

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.

He had a number of suggestions, among them the spirit of internationalism and common (not cosmopolitan—he was insistent on this point) humanity… and even peace which, as he wryly noted, “has become a sort of religion among us.” He suggested still more coyly, in a famous essay composed in 1929 (and entitled simply “Olympia”), that there was a kind of paganism at the heart of his revival:

shake off, and from which—I will risk this seeming blasphemy—it would not be well for it to free itself completely: and that is the cult of the human being, of the human body, mind and flesh, feeling and will, instinct and conscience. Sometimes flesh, feeling and instinct have the upper hand, and sometimes mind, will and conscience, for these are the two despots who strive for primacy within us, and whose conflict often rends us cruelly. We have to attain a balance. We reach it, but we cannot hold it.

Coubertin goes on to say that human history is woven on a skein where the woop is “pagan” and the warf is “ascetic.” The tapestry woven by religion and culture involves a complex dance of embodiment. Coubertin concludes that Hellenism was the first culture to make the explicit aspiration toward the balance of the two critical forces in the name of “eurhythmy” the central tenet of its conception of social greatness. Olympia was “the first capital of eurhythmy,” he says, but to see this “one has to proceed more in the manner of archaeologist than an historian.”

As perplexing as his attempts to denote the god worshiped at modern Olympia proved to be, Coubertin was much better when it came to the question of ritual. 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.

And so they did. And still do—beyond his wildest expectations. But how? It is well enough to speak of ritual studies in the abstract, but Coubertin put real concreteness into the body of such study (Durkheim’s sociology was already in the air). In the face of many rather abstract analyses of “ritual” and “ritual practice,” Coubertin gave real teeth to

the enterprise of ritual studies by emphasizing what should have been clear to all of us who work in this area: that “ritual” is simply the name we give to certain practices that are choreographed in such a way as to create the possibility of certain kinds of experience. The Modern Olympics are choreographed to give the athletes, and to a lesser degree, the spectators, a spiritual experience of enormous and lasting power. It is striking how many gold medal winners refer to their time on the podium as “the most spiritual moment of [their] li[ves].”

Ritual and religion, hosted by a religion-less state. It will be interesting indeed to see how the Chinese Olympic Committee elects to stage these Modern Games, both the opening ”ritual” and thereafter.