Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr.

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I want to be sure to say up front that I come to most of this material as an amateur, and that I think there continues to be a virtue in this status.

The International Olympic Committee acknowledged only recently that the status of the amateur was virtually impossible to translate into meaningful cross-cultural terms--terms that would be equally applicable in the former Soviet Union and the United States of America, let's say--and thus we have the "Dream Team" now to enjoy or by which to be scandalized, as we choose.

"Amateurism" in the intellectual life, however, is a bit easier to define, so we say, and it has traditionally been a less romantic idea than its athletic counterpart. "Amateur" athletics is something~we were in the habit of celebrating at the Olympics until quite recently. But intellectual amateurism is a bit harder to celebrate. Intellectuals are supposed to be professionals, just as they are supposed to be experts.

I am neither.

But I have been rather heavily immersed in a variety of Olympic materials--ancient and modern materials--for the past six months, and would like to share with you some first impressions about how these materials look when we compare them. My lecture this evening is thus the lecture of an Olympic amateur, but I hope nevertheless that it will be worth something, even if, an hour from now, you are not quite willing to award me any sort of wreath or medal.

I personally think it significant to explore what the Modern Olympic Movement, just one hundred years old now, really looked like at its inception, especially since we have already--in the relatively short course of one dramatic century--forgotten most of the roots of the Movement, as well as the origins of a number of Olympic "traditions" we all continue to hold dear. That is the perspective, in any case, that an amateur can speak most meaningfully about.


Let me begin then, by saying a word more about what this talk will not be. It will not really be about the idea of amateurism--an idea which has, as I say, attracted a great deal of attention in recent memory. The myth of the amateur athlete had little currency in antiquity, and it has little currency now in the 1990's--except in a few lingering sports, such as international soccer. So I will pass over it in relative silence.

This will also not be a lecture about the ideal of world-peace, nor about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people--at least not directly. To be sure, these are noble ideas, and they are as worth talking about today as they were when a good many Hellenistic and Roman philosophers did so. These ideas are a large part of what we think the Olympic rituals are designed to celebrate. And so they are.

But these ideas have had a most peculiar history in this century. Shortly after the resurrection of the Olympic Ideal in Athens in 1896, and after four inconsistently successful Modern Games in Paris (1900), St. Louis (1904), London (1908), and Stockholm (1912), the First World War broke out in 1914. Ironically, the 1916 Games had been scheduled to take place in Berlin, but of course they did not.

It was a shattering moment for the Modern Olympic Ideal. According to the beliefs of the time (beliefs which are disconfirmed by ancient history, and by most of the archaeological "facts," I am afraid), the Greeks had been able to set aside their petty regionalisms and rivalries in order to celebrate something larger, something enduringly significant, in quadrennial games which were sanctified by a sacred truce that allowed free-passage for all athletes and spectators to and from the Games.

The Olympic Ideal--so says the Classical Olympic Myth, at least--was stronger than the forces of war.

In the twentieth century, the War proved to be stronger than that Ideal. The First World War dealt a deathblow to a variety of pacifist movements in Europe, and presented an extraordinary challenge to the Liberal Protestant presuppositions on which much of this pacifism had been built.

But the First World War also interrupted the sequence of Modern Olympiads. And there was real question, in some quarters at least, as to whether it was morally meaningful to pick up where we had left off for the 1920 Games.

A rather significant, and really quite moving, decision was made by the fledgling International Olympic Committee. First, they decided to go ahead and have the Olympic Games. Second and far more important, it seems as if these Games were deliberately staged in that part of Europe which had arguably been most devastated by the War--in Belgium. So the decision was made to hold the Games in Antwerp in 1920.

This same pattern asserted itself during and after the Second World War. In yet another of Modern Olympism's many historical ironies, the last Games before the Second World War were held in Berlin in 1936. These were the notorious Games presided over by Adolf Hitler, who had come to power in 1933, and immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl's important (now notorious) aesthetico-documentary, Olympia.

The 1940 Games were scheduled to take place in Tokyo. They did not. The 1944 Games were cancelled as well. Again, the question of what to do in the War's aftermath was a pertinent and poignant one. And here again the IOC's answer was telling. The 1948 Games were held in London, a city which had again been singularly ravaged by the War. It was, in a sense, Antwerp revisited.

One wonders if we might one day elect to hold the Olympic Games in Sarajevo, again, to make a similar Olympic statement.

Thus the Wars, while temporarily stronger than the so-called Olympic Truce (although there is really no modern analogue to the ancient Truce), have not proven to be stronger than the Olympic Ideal itself. We make much of this fact--as perhaps we should.

Now, let me emphasize what I have been trying to do here at the outset. While attending to certain moral questions, I do not want to moralize the phenomenon of Modern Olympism--either positively or negatively.

I do not want to sing the praises of some myth of amateurism which was not ancient and which is no longer modern. Nor do I wish to hymn the ideal of world peace and fellowship, since wars and intrigue plagued the ancient festivals at Olympia throughout Greek antiquity, and since the shattering history of this century is so thoroughly stitched in to the very fabric of the Modern Olympic Movement.

But if I do not come to praise the Modern Olympics, neither do I come to bury them. Too much demythologizing becomes debunking, in its turn, and I have no wish to debunk either the Ancient or the Modern Olympic festivals, different as they no doubt are.

If I do not want to talk about Truces or Amateurism, neither do I want to talk about Big Money, Television and Mass Media. I do not even want to talk about the corrosive forces of Modern Nationalism, and the notorious medal-counts in the Modern Games.

I want to bracket all of these important moral questions at the outset, because I think all of them are secondary questions. Secondary to what?, you may ask. Well you may ask . . .

Secondary, I think, to Religion, and to the Nineteenth Century in Europe.

I want to place more emphasis on certain intellectual, cultural and historical developments than is customary in talking about the Olympics, in order to make good my thesis tonight that the Modern Olympic Movement was a pretty clearly religious movement, and that it still is.

As the Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) said time and again, without the extraordinary ritual of the Opening and Closing ceremonies (the hardest tickets to come by, still, by the way) the Olympic Games would simply be another set of World Championships-- and there were already enough of those.

The Modern Olympics are not World Championships, and will never be, at least not in the foreseeable future. That is a fact worth pausing over. They are not World Championships; they are something else. Defining that "something else" could be the task of a lifetime, I am discovering. I am calling it "Religion" for the purposes of today's talk.

My thesis about the religiosity of the Games is part of a much larger hunch--namely, that we in the "modern" world are still trying to work out questions (and perhaps even some answers) we have inherited from the Nineteenth Century.

The Modern Olympic Movement is but one on a surprisingly long list of such things.

Now, to make that odd thesis good in the time remaining to me, I need to explain why I think that is the case. The answer is an archaeological answer, of sorts.

Let me explain.


Really to understand the Modern Olympic Movement, I think, we must take the image of Archaeology seriously--and by this I am not referring to the British traveller's, Richard Chandler's, discovery of the site of Ancient Olympia in 1766, nor to the tentative French excavations at the Temple of Zeus in 1829, nor of the vast German archaeological activity which began in 1875, intensified during the years of Occupation in the Second World War, and continues unabated to this day.

Rather, I would like to use the image of Archaeology as a parable for understanding certain complex cultural formations like the International Olympic Movement.

In excavation work, everything is in reverse. The last things come to the surface first. The first thing you find on an archaeological site is the last level that was inhabited. The last thing you find is the first thing at the site. You are travelling through time, in reverse.

There is thus no way back, back to antiquity, much less back to the beginning (the word, 'archaeology', is a Greek word meaning "the study of origins"), save through every subsequent layer of history and material accumulation. It's a lot like life that way, personal life. Every point in the past is linked; one moment flows into another.

I am struck by the fact that there is, in the intellectual excavation we are undertaking here, a pronounced historical gap between the cancellation of the Ancient Olympic Games in 393 CE when all the major pagan sanctuaries in the ancient world were shut down--for religious reasons--and the "resurrection" of the Modern Olympic Movement in 1894-1896.

More specifically, the archaeological layer of the Nineteenth Century proves to be the most significant, and the largest, single layer in this process of historical recovery. To understand the Modern Olympic Movement, we will need to pay careful attention to the cultural context of the Nineteenth Century in Europe. Only after we have done that will we be able to understand the Modern Movement. And only after we have done that will we be able to go back to the ancient Greek festivals in any meaningful and credible way.

As I say, everything is in reverse. There is no way back, save through the thick layers of more recent accumulation. There is no way back, archaeologically speaking, to ancient Greece, save through the nineteenth century, when the real excavating, at Olympia and elsewhere, began.


If I am an amateur about the Modern Olympic Movement, I am doubly an amateur about historical and cultural matters in the Nineteenth Century. There's nothing for it at this point but to push ahead, to sin boldly, and to talk about how odd certain intellectual and cultural developments seem--at least to this amateur.

The least I can do is to avoid lecturing to you about the Nineteenth Century, since I don't know much about it. Instead, I would like to underscore nine separate but related developments which, taken together, begin to look quite significant indeed for the topic at hand, and what may seem at first glance the rather unusual way that I have elected to get at it.


This was a century which saw a great deal of- new interest in old Greek things. The Greeks themselves (with a good bit of European prodding and support) successfully overcame four hundred years of Ottoman occupation in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829 or 1831). A great many young Europeans (many of them university students) got involved in this war. Lord Byron popularized the War for many, through his own participation in it, and he died of a fever at Missolinghi in 1827.

Greek fraternities--which are a rather unusual and deeply interesting cultural and ritual form we rarely analyze the way an Anthropologist would--seem to have been formed at a number of North American universities to express solidarity with these self-styled Greek "freedom fighters." So it was that the modern nation-state of Greece was born in the third decade of the nineteenth century.

Some sixty years later, European and American athletes would travel to this new-old country, and to the newly excavated Panathonaic Stadium in Athens to slav their Modern Games there.


Archaeology was really born in this same century. The first activity we could call "archaeological" in any meaningful sense seems to have taken place during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt in 1798 and 1799. A great many ancient granite obelisks made their way back to the great capitals of EuroAmerica after the Napoleonic invasions--the two most famous are of course, Cleopatra's Needles in London and New York.

Then, in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, Lord Elgin, a Scot, acquired his notorious firman from the Ottoman Turkish authorities and looted the Athenian Parthenon of its major pedimental statuary and all the frieze work. These pieces are, notoriously from the Greek perspective, still in the British Museum in London. Most of the masterworks of Greek sculpture are now housed in the great capitals of EuroAmerica. We should reflect more than we normally do on the moral statement these facts make.

In the second decade of the century, a then little-known architectural student named Charles Cockerell, along with three friends--one of them British, and two Bavarian--made astonishing discoveries of statuary at the Temple to Aphaia on the island of Aegina just south of Athens (this collection is now housed in toto in the Glyptothek Museum in Munich) and at the Temple of Apollo at Bassae.

Shortly thereafter came the pioneering work of Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy on the western coast of Asia Minor from the 1870's to the 1890's, as well as Mycenae and Tiryns on the Greek mainland in the later 1870's, with astonishing discoveries of treasures~ in both places. By now, the great age of Greek Archaeology, conducted primarily by the European Great Powers, had begun.

What is important to note is that such investigation was the rather casual, and as yet "unscientific," pastime--the hobby, really--of wealthy European aristocrats (the discipline, in Greece at least, still bears the stamp of this classist Classicism). This biographical observation well fits the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and many others in the inner circle of his Olympic Revival.


Archaeology, especially when it is a discipline which measures "success" in the acquisition of Art Historical treasure, required museums in which to deposit such treasure. The Nineteenth Century is the great age of the Museum, a uniquely European cultural artefact which is still very much with us. The Louvre, arguably the first modern museum in the world, opened its doors in 1793, but it provided a venue for painting primarily, not ancient sculpture. The Townley Gallery in London was the first gallery devoted exclusively to the sculptural masterworks of Greek and Roman antiquity, and the Glyptothek in Munich is only the third museum on this august list. By the end of the century, museums had spring up all over Europe and North America.

The Olympic Movement, I think, takes on a very peculiar shape in a "museum culture" such as our own.


"Classics," too, had become a separate discipline within the university systems of Europe. "Philology," as it was called in German, was first made a "department," and thus a "major" if you will, in the late eighteenth century in several German-speaking universities. Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) coined the term, and created the discipline, according to his younger contemporaries (Nietzsche among them), and his influence on matters such as textual criticism would have an extraordinary impact on other fields, most notably on Biblical Studies, in the next generation.

For our purposes, what is significant is that a great many educated social elites made the reading and memorization of Greek and Latin literature, as well as the immersion in ancient art and ancient history, the goal of their college years. These would be the same men, in several cases, who became "archaeologists," and "art historians," and finally even "Olympians" later in the century.


"Art History" was a product of the same passion and the same period. Another German, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) is credited with the invention of this new body of knowledge, which was also incorporated into a revised university curriculum in the next century. His works, most notably the History of the Art of Antiquity and Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Painting and Sculpture, created a discipline, as I say, but they also created a taste to go with it.

Winckelmann, much like Goethe and even like Nietzsche, fully one hundred years later, never went to Greece. He travelled extensively, and chose to live, in Italy. His canons of Classicism were not derived from a study of Greek art, but rather of Roman imitations and copies of Greek originals.

Now, in fairness to Winckelmann, travel to Greece in the late eighteenth century was easier said than done. In fact, he--unlike Goethe or Nietzsche--was at least endeavoring to travel there when he was murdered.

But my larger point is that Greece was not really thought to be part of the west, or of Europe, at the time--not in the way, say, that Italy was. Greece was exotic, Oriental, in much the same way it still is for many student backpackers (and for even more fortunate students, such as myself, who have been fortunate enough to live there, for a longer period of time).

The student backpackers of the early nineteenth century--men like Charles Cockerell, and even Lord Byron in his way--were largely from Great Britain (and France). The German-speaking world which was so integral in "rediscovering" and thus of "reinventing" Greece as a subject of Philological and Art Historical investigation for Europe did not really start travelling to Greece until the end of the century. Pierre de Coubertin, for his part, travelled extensively in England and Germany both before he ever made it east, to Greece.

As de Coubertin himself freely admits, Olympia had always been for him a "dream city." After some thirty years of German excavation there, he notes: "Germany has brought to light what remained of Olympia; why should not France succeed in rebuilding its splendors" 1908)? The French, de Coubertin believed, would help to restore Olympia's ancient ritual aura, under the aegis of the Modern Olympic Games.


The idea that "Greece" was only gradually brought into the "European" fold has other important implications for Olympic developments. European philosophers--beginning with Hegel (1776- 1831) in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century-- began telling the story of something called "the philosophy of history," in which the Greeks were consistently described as "Chapter One" (Egypt and even India were mentioned, but only as a sort of "Preface" to the real story, which was a Greek story, or rather, a European one).

Greece, that is to say, was made Chapter One of the story of Europe. These complex developments also help to form the cultural and intellectual backdrop to the re-establishment of the Modern Olympic Games, in Athens, in 1896.

Europe, it was believed, was coming home, returning to its own mythic origins. But of course you cannot go back in time, and you cannot make a permanent home in Paradise. Europe, interestingly enough, could not stay in Greece for long, but rather brought the Greeks, and their Games--and a good bit of their ancient art--back home with them to EuroPe. I have already said something about that.


It was left finally to the philosophers to reflect upon the nature of the sculptures, and the architecture, they were exporting from the eastern Mediterranean. A great many buildings--such as the ones in our own capital in this country--took the interesting form of Classical Greek temples. Our Supreme Court is an excellent case in point.

So it is hardly accidental, I think, that Aesthetics, as a discrete branch of philosophical enquiry, was another contemporary development. This so-called "science of perception" was coined and created by Alexander G. Baumgarten ( - ) in his Reflections on Poetry (1735), then reified by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790). Hegel's massive Lectures on Aesthetics, compiled after his death in 1831, well illustrate the philosophical and cultural obsession with Greek antiquity. And from Germany, these bodies of knowledge too migrated to England and to France. It was there, in Paris I think, that Pierre de Coubertin ingested them and took them to heart--a heart, I might add, which is now buried rather far from its body, in a memorial at Olympia, in Greece.


The nineteenth century, especially in the English-speaking world, also saw the birth, I think, of two fascinating new literary genres. The modern travel journal is an intriguing genre in its own right, and I encourage you each to think about the fascinating cultural statement it makes.

Alexander William Kinglake's (1809-1891) enormously popular Eothen (first published in 1844) was "journalistic" in the truest sense of the word. It was a deeply personal journal. No mere invocation of culture and place (his "place" was pretty exclusively the then-Ottoman Empire, incidentally), Kinglake's was one of the very first books to place a very distinctive personality--his own-in that place--as participant-observer, and as vaguely cynical, snobbish imperial observer.

[Mark Twain would mimic this same style brilliantly, while covering much of the same ground (and adding Greece to his itinerary), in his Innocents Abroad (1869). The book sold 100,000 copies in two years.]

Kinglake carefully cultivated this rather stylized image to himself to such a degree that the book was every bit as much about himself as it was about the Ottoman Empire. Person and place, that is to say, were intimately linked, much as they were thought to be in the ancient Olympian [epinikian] poetry of Pindar.

Moving in the opposite direction, the historical novel was also born in the world of English letters in the early nineteenth century with the work of Sir Walter Scott. In the words of Georg Lukacs, the famous Marxist literary critic, with quite astonishing suddenness the taste for fiction "flavoured with the portrayal of historical place" (19) arose right around the time of Napoleon's defeat. Such a taste firmly established itself in the minds of literati and their readership alike.

No longer content to do what medieval and later artists had done--namely, to portray the Holy Family seated happily in the lovely porticoes and basilicae of Italy, dressed in Renaissance finery--these people were attempting to place their characters, and their stories, as accurately as they were able in their own historical and cultural contexts.

Person and place, again. We are witnessing here, I think, the (re?)emergence of a, tentative perhaps, but more authentically global perspective, borne of the experiences of building an Empire on which the sun allegedly never set. The world is a vast theater, peopled with an impossible array of cultures and human kinds. And our aim, in the words of the anonymous PBS broadcasters, should be "to tell them all."

These ideas resonated most strongly with Pierre de Coubertin's foregrounding of the ideas of cosmopolitanism and internationalism as the very essence of the Modern Olympics. These were the things, de Coubertin insisted, that made the Modern Movement most unlike its ancient predecessor, a religious festival which had been limited to the Greek-speaking world, and unified by a coherent set of religious beliefs, and practices, and myths.

"The art of living," de Coubertin said, "was at its apogee, and the art of dying followed from it quite naturally; people knew how to live without fear and to die without regrets for the sake of a changeless city and an undisputed religion--something which-alas!--we know no longer" (1894).

The Modern Movement, de Coubertin now realized, would have to derive its unity from some other spiritual source.


In what did de Coubertin's hopes for that sort of spiritual coming- together consist? The answer to this question seems to me to have a great deal to do with an intellectual and artistic movement known as Romanticism. This is a difficult term, if for no other reason than that so many of the people I would want to consider representatives of a definitively Romantic style--Byron, Goethe, and even Nietzsche--all rejected the term and did not want to be associated with it. What is Romanticism, if some of its purest representatives refused to call themselves by that name?

For our present purposes, we can think of Romanticism as an intellectual and spiritual recovery (or, as it so often was in practice, a re-creation) of ancient Greece, and an attempted communion with that vision of antiquity.

A great many Romantic poets made careers out of translating Archaic and Classical poetry into modern (Romance!) languages.

These same poets fostered the image of the Artist (capital A!) as a visionary mystic and as a supplier of epiphanies. de Coubertin and others would make these same sorts of claims about the modern Athlete. He or she presents us with epiphanies, moments of transcendent grace, beauty, and clarity.

Here is how Nietzsche understood the matter, in 1876:

The deep melancholy in Pindar; only when a ray of light
comes down from above does human life shine.

And here is Pindar, whom Nietzsche is reading:

 Water is preeminent and gold, like a fire
    burning in the night, outshines
 all possessions that magnify men's pride.
    But if, my soul, you yearn
     to celebrate great games,
      look no further
     for another star
    shining through the deserted ether
 brighter than the sun, or for a contest
 mightier than Olympia (Olympian I )

Now, what I have been trying to suggest tonight is that the Romantics' Greece was, in many important ways, a fantasy-world which had never really existed. It was an ideal created in the hopes of reclaiming a Lost Paradise in the degenerate, "modern" present.

We have the Romantics to thank, I think,.for turning 'Modern' into a proper noun, and into a tremendous spiritual problem.

Greece, they argued, was an alternative, an image of lost innocence and lost wholeness. Greece, they believed, provided an escape from "modern times." In a variety of pursuits, like swimming, nineteenth century Romantics attempted to recreate that image of lost innocence, of reintegrated humanity, as a way to escape from the perceived decadence and the spiritual malaise of their own situation. The Modern Olympic Games became an important piece of that Romantic reconstruction, I think.


Which is what makes the Modern Olympic Movement a religious movement, in my judgment. It was the Romantics, I think, who made our own rhetoric of "the ancients and the moderns" meaningful. "Antiquity," especially Greek antiquity, was seen as an antidote for "modern times." That language, and that nostalgia, is inseparable from the Modern Olympic Movement and the very precious ideal of Modern Olympism.

Now, a revival is also a resurrection, when the thing to be revived is as old and as mythic and as religious as "Olympia." Christians debated throughout their first several centuries the nature of the resurrection in which they believed--whether the body we will have one day is continuous or discontinuous with the body we had in life.

A resurrection-body was imagined as a perfect body, a body which lacked the flaws, and the limits, which our natural bodies labor under. The famous Orthodox doctrine of St. Athanasius--"God became a man so that we might become divine"--makes this point nicely. And that doctrine, the doctrine of theosis, is also powerfully at play in Olympia.

The Romantics, many of them in any case, thought that the Christian culture of Europe was dying. The question for them thus became how to breathe new life into dying sacred institutions, or else to dispense with the institutions altogether. Going back to the Greek roots of the Christian faith was a trajectory charted out by a great many disaffected Romantics. But, in "going back to Greece," the question of where and when, you are going emerged.

Go back to a certain epoch--the third or fourth century, let's say--and you get back to a kind of Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, which represented the road not taken in Latin-- speaking western Europe. These Greeks were Christians, but Christians of a heretofore unknown sort. Heavily liturgical and ritualistic, like their Catholic cousins,. the Orthodox were nonetheless perceived to be hierarchical and, well, less Roman than their Latin counterparts. They were, in a word, an exciting alternative type of Christianness--as they still are today.

Go back further still, and you leave Christianity behind altogether. Many Romantics went there, back to the pagan, preChristian world we had lost--Goethe and Byron rather tentatively, Nietzsche more emphatically--and what they discovered was another sort of religion, an alternative kind of spirituality, which might also be the antidote to a dying Christian worldview.

The so-called New Age religions of this generation are not the first to call for a return to paganism as a way to overcome the alleged sickness at the heart of Judaeo-Christianity. Many of the Romantics said this well over a hundred years ago.

Since I do not have time to pursue the point, perhaps you will allow me simply to state it here--and then we can discuss it, if you wish--that Pierre de Coubertin envisioned these resurrected Olympic festivals as an alternative model of spiritual life, of a vital, an embodied spiritual life.

"Muscular Christianity" was one of the buzzwords of the day-- the idea was to restore integrity and legitimacy to the human form, which had labored for too long under what de Coubertin called "medievalism's" uneasy gaze and guilty conscience.

The Baron spoke unabashedly and at length of the religio athletae, although he was never able to say clearly in what that religion consisted.

He mentions abstract ideas like our common humanity, and internationalism, and even the idea of Peace, which he insists, "has become a sort of religion" among us. "Modern athletics, gentlemen, shows two trends to which I would draw your attention," he notes finally. "It is becoming firstly democratic and secondly international" (1894). All of these developments had clear spiritual implications and impact.

Yet de Coubertin speaks too of nationalism, of athletes swearing oaths before their respective national flags, where they can no longer swear to Zeus. The First World War and its aftermath has made such claims rather more difficult for us to swallow.

He fears that the old gods are dead and he, for his part, was not trying to bring them back. Yet he did want their ritual; he simply could not say what he wanted it for.

This makes all the more poignant, for me, de Coubertin's final ritual act--his decision to have his heart removed from his body in death and-to have it installed at the sanctuary of Olympia. This was symbolically a "refusal to go to heaven" in the words of a good friend of mine, a pagan gesture to the core.


I have mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche more than once tonight, and I would like to do so again now. He is, to my mind, an enormously significant figure in charting out these vast Olympian developments. Consider this short list of by no means accidental facts.

Nietzsche taught as a Professor in the fledgling department of Philologie for ten years at the University of Basel, before poor health forced him to retire.

He remained interested in the Greeks all of his life, for reasons which were directly related to his lifelong interest in religion, non-Christian religion. He venerated the competitive spirit he thought he found there, best of all.

While his creative life ended, tragically, with his collapse in 1889, he lived for eleven years more and died in the grand, symbolic year of 1900.

Nietzsche's quarrel with the Classics--it was surely one of the important reasons he left the university--was that they were too nostalgic, too nostalgic about the Greeks. He said very consistently that he wanted to use the Classics, not be enslaved to them. He suggested that the Classical world provides us with an extraordinary range of spiritual and aesthetic models to surpass, not an ancient world to imitate.

The moderns, he noted, are not like the ancients, and cannot be again. Using the ancients as a model--and I say it again, a model to be surpassed--the moderns would be capable of creating things of which the ancients could never have dreamed. de Coubertin said much the same thing about his much-touted Modern Olympians.

But there is a deeper point in Nietzsche's Classicism, a point which is overlooked in too many sophomoric portraits of Nietzsche as the artistic self-creator. Nietzsche knew well that artists cannot bear too much freedom. When Zarathustra realizes for the first time that all things recur, he faints at the thought. The thought that "God is dead" is put in the mouth of a madman. Art requires constraints, rules, limitations. This Nietzsche knew.

A sonnet is beautiful for many reasons--among them, because it meets the rules of structure and of meter, and plays with them so interestingly. It seizes upon a limitation, and asserts a mastery over it. Such mastery lies at the heart of the artistic adventure, Nietzsche felt. It lies at the heart of athleticism. too.

That is one reason, I think, the Greeks were so much impressed by athleticism.


The serious message in this effort of intellectual reconstruction is that the Modern Games are much more unlike the Ancient Games than they are like them. I have said that before. Let me use one example to illustrate this point, an example which troubled Pierre de Coubertin a great deal: there were no team sports in antiquity (excepting teams of horses).

The Ancient Olympic festivals were the arena for individual human excellence. And de Coubertin, for his part, remained committed to his somewhat narrow view that the focus of attention in the Modern Olympic spectacle should remain the young adult male who is an individual athlete. No women, no children, no teams. We have clearly moved very far from his ideals here.

Now, our modern team-sports seem to me to have three very interesting components, things which may have existed in antiquity, but which seem somehow more pronounced today:

  1. most of them use elaborate fields, with lots and lots of complex lines
  2. a good many of them rely on the clock, focussing attention on the passage of time
    (regularized timekeeping was another northern European invention, by the way, datable to the year 1687)
  3. most of them have elaborate and quite complicated rules

Each of these factors--boundaries, time, and rules--are LIMITS imposed upon the modern athlete. And this closes the circle of my talk tonight, returning us to the one area of profoundest continuity between Ancient and Modern athleticism.

Athletics--ancient or modern--seem to be a profound meditation on the phenomenon of human limitation, and the ways in which that limitation is dealt with, played with, extended or surpassed. By exploring how we may be human in a fittingly human way--embodied, mortal, and profoundly limited, but capable of rare and soaring moments of athletic grace and transcendence--we come to the astonished realization that transcendence, of a sort, is in fact one of the essential marks of being human in a distinctly human way.

That aspiration toward transcendence, I think, lies at the heart of the religious gesture, and seemed to animate many of de Coubertin's reflections on the religio athletae.

There is another serious message in my brief attempt at Olympic retrieval here. It is the notion that there is a lot more to the Modern Olympics than athletics.

We still live with a fascinating set of nineteenth century concerns, I think, even in a world we so boldly (and far too quickly) label "postmodern." We have these concerns mediated to us by the twentieth century, by the haunting memory of two world wars, and by the legacy of institutional genocide. We combat terrorism-- even at the Olympic Games--fearing all the while that certain imperialistic tendencies in our own past history have come dramatically home to roost. We have never fully made up our minds, it doesn't seem to me, about how to feel about the nineteenth century in Europe.

It seems the ultimate century of moral ambivalence (but then, what century was not?). Words like colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and racism haunt us and cause us important and grave moral concern. They are an indelible and inescapable part of the nineteenth century package.

But so, too, are the first halting steps taken toward a greater internationalism, toward "more open and freer markets (!)," toward more open philosophical eyes, and yes, toward the kinds of institutional and cosmopolitan festivals like the World's Fair, and the Olympic Games, which are my strange topic this evening. The roots of all these things lie in the nineteenth century--where Hegel, in the first decade, asked if perhaps God weren't dead, and where Nietzsche insisted so emphatically, in the last decade, that, in his Christian clothing at least, he was.

In the confrontation with this kind of death, a great many reflective people sought ways to resurrect a ghost, or else to reconstitute alternative spiritual practices to feed a powerful and as-yet unfulfilled religious yearning.

Let me close by asking you each to reflect upon what you might expect to see in Atlanta in 1996. For those of you who will attend an event, or even watch it on television, what do you expect to see?

A ritual celebration of extraordinary cosmopolitanism, to be sure.

A feast of internationalism as well--especially now, when we have a great many nations which were not even countries a mere three years ago.

We will have personal-interest stories, inevitably, a barrage of them. Most of them will be stories about the overcoming of hardships, limitations, all of this contributing to that shining "moment in time," a transcendent moment of Olympic performance.

In a world where a great many people--despite what the exit polls suggest--say that they do not consider themselves to be "religious," but do think of themselves as very spiritual, then the Modern Movement of Olympism functions as religio, indeed.

Olympism was conceived as a religious festival in antiquity. The archaeological evidence suggests that the cult of Zeus predates the athletic contests at Olympia by two centuries at least.

Modern Olympism was explicitly called a religio by de Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee.

It still functions as one, it seems to me, fully one hundred years after the Modern Olympic Revival.

As is the case with any religion, it is important to know where certain spiritual traditions initially came from. There usually are reasons, symbolic reasons, lying behind why we do what we do. I have tried tonight to sketch some of the reasons behind some of the ritualism attached to the Modern Olympic Movement, in the clear conviction that they, too, constitute a tradition, as worthy of knowing about as any we may have inherited from church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

At the end of March, a select group of Atlantans will be travelling to an ancient temple, to ignite a sacred flame in the Altis, the inner sanctuary at Olympia. They will tour Greece briefly for five days, then bring this sacred flame back to the United States, where they will again tour with it, then use it to light the centennial flame in July.

Such a tradition, so rich with symbolic pertinence, was created by the Germans for the Berlin Games of 1936. Yet we think of it, not as Nazi tradition, but as an Olympic one. Explaining that sense of ownership, that profound sense of tradition, as well as the soaring aspirations symbolized in such a gesture, seems to me to lie at the heart of the mystery of the Modern Olympics.


Consider the matter this way. If the purpose of sport were simply to see what the human body is capable of doing, then it would seem to be a matter of doing whatever is necessary to aid the body in performing at that level. Drug use would be, not merely permissible, but actually mandated--in the name of seeing what the body can be made to do.

The argument is usually made that steroids are bad for you, and that this is why the athlete should not use them. He or she will pay for it later in life. That argument rings rather hollow to me. Most world class athletes pay for their athleticism later in life. Football is bad for you. Long distance running is bad for you. All sorts of strenuous and heavily repetitive physical activity is bad for the human body. I do not think our moral intuition about steroids is a matter of health.

It seems to me to be part of a much deeper intuition--the intuition that athletics is and should be an artistic matter of playing with the inherent limitations that our embodiment imposes on us. Drug use is thus the moral equivalent of changing the boundaries of the playing field, or changing the rules in the middle of the game, or putting extra time back on the clock--and I think we resist it morally for these reasons. It is part of a much larger intuition about the role sport plays in a properly ordered human life.

Copyright Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr.

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Last updated: June 13, 1996