The Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.