While I was writing this post, the Olympic Games were still going on in Rio de Janeiro and of course were exhaustively covered in the media. There were some reports on religious aspects of the event and the whole extravaganza had a quasi-sacred quality, beginning with the lighting of the Olympic torch after its journey from Greece (carefully packed, one hopes, so that it wouldn’t cause a mid-air fire on Olympic Airways). Naturally most of the reporting dealt with the actual athletics (which record was broken by members of which national team). Although some profane and even criminal developments intruded (such as the deepening economic and political crisis in the host country, and the scandal of government-sponsored mass doping of Russian athletes in earlier Games).On August 12, 2016, Religion News Service reported on a protest against the official treatment of religion by the International Olympic Committee (its headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the incumbent president is Thomas Bacher). The IOC had decided (who knows by what demographic or political reasoning) that five religions would be officially recognized by the interfaith center in the Olympic Village—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism—but that other faiths could also use the facility. There were five interfaith rooms (I would assume, not allocated to the five recognized religions by the respective numbers of their adherents—otherwise Christians and Muslims would hog most of the space, and Jews would meet in a phone booth). Each room could hold 800 people, with changeable religious paraphernalia (a practice, I think, pioneered by the U.S. military chaplaincy)—Jewish worship following right after Catholic Mass; crucifix out, Torah scrolls in. A formidable, evidently white lady, Mother Fatima Damas, president of the Umbanda Spiritualist Congegation, protested the omission of her religion from the IOC-approved list. The issue reaches deeply into Brazilian religious and racial history. (You clicked on religious curiosities. I deliver what I promise!)Candomble and Umbanda are usually listed as African-Brazilian religions, although their histories and current characteristics are quite different. Candomble is a typical hybrid, in this case between African and Christian practices and beliefs, as exists in most countries throughout the Americas into which black slaves were imported. (Compare Voudun a.k.a. Voodoo in Haiti). In other countries, where Christianity interacted with indigenous Indian religions, the hybrid looks quite different. (Compare sacred pre-Columbian rituals performed in front of Catholic cathedrals in Guatemala or Mexico). In all Afro hybrids, possession of a dancer by an African god or goddess is a central ritual feature—see Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Vanguard Press, 1953—a film was released many years later). Deren was originally a dancer and film-maker. Unlike the typical anthropologist, she didn’t just observe and film the dancers, but joined them. In the course of this rather unusual form of “participant observation,” she was possessed by the goddess Erzulie, a flirtatious black Aphrodite. Deren’s book contains a most detailed description of the subjective experience of being possessed. (If you have supernatural proclivities, don’t read the book or watch the film if you are alone in the dark!)In the event in Rio, the protest of Mother Fatima was publicly supported by Renato Machado, a prominent civil rights lawyer. Her religion, Umbanda, is “part of the identity of the country,” he insisted. The IOC, ever media-conscious, immediately complied (in an official photograph she stands right next to a Roman Catholic bishop).Umbanda has more recent origins than Candomble. In the early years of the 20th century a seventeen-year-old young man who was then studying to be a naval officer, Zelio Fernandino de Moraes, developed mediumistic faculties and gathered a circle of people who attended his séances. In the 1920s this developed into a regular cult under the name of Umbanda with Zelio as its charismatic leader. Unlike Candomble, its core constituency was middle-class and white or mixed- race (which, as far as I can make out, was also Zelio’s background). However, as a medium he made contact with the spirits of dead people of various races (such as a mixed-race Indian and a black slave who had died after a vicious flogging by his owner. As the name of the religion suggests, elements of real or imagined African religion were incorporated into its teachings. The Brazilian middle-class culture was influenced for several decades by two seemingly contradictory European doctrines—“spiritism” (a.k.a. spiritualism) based on the practice of communicating with the dead with the help of mediums, and the “positivism” of Auguste Comte, an ideology for creating a social order based on science (its motto, “Order and Progress,” is still emblazoned on the Brazilian flag). Both movements splintered into many different sects or schools, some more African than others. Umbanda, more socially respectable than Candomble, was favored in the 1930s by the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas. After he lost the support of the military on which his “New State” depended, Vargas committed suicide. In his suicide note he wrote: “Serenely, I take my first step on the road to eternity.” One should not underestimate the consoling power of even the most unlikely hybrid.On August 11, 2016, Religion News Service reported on one of several incidents in which athletes mentioned their faith in the wake of Olympic victories. Two Americans (Christians, either Catholic or Protestant) won a silver medal in men’s synchronized platform diving. David Boudia, one of the pair, explained: “We both know that our identity is in Christ, and not in the results of this competition.” This led Kimberly Winston, an RNS staff writer who reported this story, to ask whether “religious athletes have any sort of edge.” It is important to understand that an answer of “yes” could mean two very different things: It could mean an age-old belief that, if one prays in the right way, God or Jesus or a saint will help one win. Here it would be an application to athletics of the so-called “prosperity gospel”—have faith and God will make you win economic success. BoudIa’s statement, it seems to me, says something very different: If you have faith, it will finally not matter whether you win or lose.” This may also give a sort of “edge,” but a quite different one from the magical belief that one’s prayer could cause a supernatural intervention in one’s favor.The modern Olympic movement very deliberately placed itself in apostolic succession from the Games that were staged at Olympia from the 18th century BCE to the 4th century CE, when the Emperor Theodosius prohibited them as he established Christianity as the Roman state religion. He was quite right in perceiving the Games as a religious ritual to Zeus and the other Olympian gods. As Hellenism spread through the Mediterranean world, its religiously tinged cult of athletics was celebrated in each “gymnasium” (from Greek gymnos/”naked,” the physical condition in which Greek men competed—an important reason why Jews rarely participated in a situation where the mark of the Covenant would be very obvious). The modern International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator. Although its first event was deliberately staged in Greece, this was not in honor of Zeus but of a new ideology of peace and friendship between nations (precisely a sort of Comte-like ordem e progreso). I find it interesting that Coubertin was influenced by Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of the Rugby school and its cult of “muscular Christianity.”If the Olympic Games are a kind of international quasi-religion, its Vatican would be at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. But, except perhaps for its bureaucrats, very few people would ground their personal identity in it. Sports is a significant source of identity for many people, but on the national or local level. There are sports closely linked to national identity—baseball in the United States, soccer in much of Europe and Latin America, skiing in Norway, cricket in many countries that once were part of the British Empire. Then there is the deeply felt loyalty to local teams. I suspect that to fans of Manchester United the survival of that soccer (in local diction “football”) team would be more viscerally important than the survival of the United Kingdom. I used to live in Brooklyn, New York, where the relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 is still mourned by older people as a deeply personal loss. I now live in Brookline, Massachusetts, where lack of interest in the Red Sox is evidence of a grave moral deficiency. There used to be a sign in the arrival area of Logan International Airport in Boston—“Welcome to Red Sox Nation.” During the apartheid era the national game of Afrikaners was rugby; black Africans played soccer. Soon after his election as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela made an ingenious symbolic gesture: South Africa played New Zealand in an international rugby game—Mandela came out in the uniform of the Springboks, to show his support of the overwhelmingly white Afrikaans-speaking team and attended the party celebrating their victory.Where there is religion, sooner or later there will be sacrilege. The 1936 Berlin Olympics had been awarded to Germany before the Nazis came to power. Hitler hijacked the event, wanting to make it into a showcase of the “New Germany.” At first all “non-Aryans” were to be banned from the event. The IOC showed unusual backbone and threatened to withdraw the event from Germany if the ban were to be enforced. Hitler gave in—millions had been invested to build the infrastructure. “Non-Aryans” could participate and all public anti- Semitic activities were suspended for the duration. Hitler did achieve a propaganda coup. Foreign visitors, who came in masses, saw a peaceful, prosperous and friendly country. Instead of wrecking Jewish stores and dragging their owners to concentration camps, storm-troopers in their brown shirts would smile at children and escort old ladies across the street. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s court film-maker, made a stunning propaganda film, employing the techniques of mass spectacles she had used a couple of years earlier in her film “Triumph of the Will” about the first Nazi party congress after attaining power. Riefenstahl’s 1936 film became the model of all subsequent Olympic extravaganzas. A more sinister event occurred during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered the Israeli team.The current doping scandal involving the Russian government directly challenges the integrity of the Olympic exercise. The consequences have not yet played out. A few weeks before the beginning of the Rio Games, Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, held a news conference in Toronto. He reported on the result of an investigation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA—an organization fortunately independent of the International Olympic Committee). Based on information supplied by a defector from the Russian Ministry of Sports, WADA found “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games.” Specifically, the Russian government, using the techniques of FSB, its security service, had engaged in massive doping of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (a resort on the Black Sea). The main method was both ingenious and simple: A hole was drilled on the wall of the room where the athletes produced their urine samples—these (possibly tainted) were passed through the hole and replaced by untainted urine). Needless to say, Moscow denounced the charges as a Western plot to discredit Russia. Thomas Bacher, president of the IOC, did not follow the initial recommendation of banning all designated Russian participants from the Rio Games. Instead the IOC delegated to separate sports federations (track, swimming, and so on) the decision of how to proceed in individual cases—a task for which these agencies were ill-equipped. Coubertin must be turning in his grave.
Published on: August 24, 2016
Order and ProgressOlympic Games—Sacred and Profane
Are the Olympic Games a kind of international quasi-religion?