A 600-foot footrace was the only athletic event at the first Olympics, a festival held in 776 B.C. and dedicated to Zeus, the chief Greek god.
For the next millennium, Greeks gathered every four years in Olympia to honor Zeus through sports, sacrifices and hymns. The five-day festival brought the Greek world together in devotion to one deity.
What began in ancient Greece as a festival to honor a single god, Zeus, has now become an almost Olympian task, as organizers of the games navigate dozens of sacred fasts, religious rituals and holy days.
The London Olympics will try to accommodate religious athletes with 193 chaplains, a prayer room in every venue and a multifaith center in the Olympic Village.
Athletes at the ancient Olympics believed their training honored the gods, and victory was a sign of favor from a deity. As contests like wrestling, boxing, and horse racing were added to the Olympic roster, they supplemented devotional sacrifices, hymns, and ceremonies.
“The idea was that you were training to please Zeus. But part of the festival would be to visit the temple, visit the cult statues, making offerings, celebrating and seeing your family,” said David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona.
The combination of Greek sport and worship led the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, to ban the Olympics in 393 A.D.
The Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 after excavations at Olympia renewed public interest in the athletics and pageantry of the Olympics.
Though not sectarian, the modern games began to take on their own quasi-religious rituals.
Coubertin borrowed ceremonies, hymns, and rituals from the ancient festival to shape a transcendent “Olympism,” uniting all athletes. Some scholars today refer to his creation as a “civil religion.”
“The civil religion was not so much the worship or devotion to the state, as it is often now understood,” explained Joseph Price, a professor of religion at Whittier College in California who researches sport and religion. Devotion “was to the civitas, the human group that transcended a particular religion.”
Over the years, the International Olympic Committee and host states introduced “new” symbols to bolster Olympism, said Stephen Mosher, professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College in New York.
Still, the modern games have touches from the ancient past…