Christians and athletics

In general, Christians did not like Greek athletics. The cult of physical beauty and power did not interest them. Moreover, athletics and games were closely linked to pagan cult. One can discern some chronological evolutions and regional differences, though. In the first centuries AD, when Christians were a minority group, they criticized above all the pagan cult. Christians from the West, who had grown up with the Roman view on sports, were also opposed to athletics, but Christians in the East were not, as they were influenced by a society that valued this practice. In the course of the fourth century, the majority of the population became Christian and pagan cult declined. The whole society (both Christians and pagans) became gradually more prudish: training your body became a sign of vanity and athletic nudity became indecent.

The Greek vocabulary of the Roman period was full of words and images from sports, both in everyday speech and in literary language. The christians took over this vocabulary, but the old words received a new philosophical and religious meaning. The Greek word for training "askesis" was reinterpreted as christian "asceticism", the harsh way of life of the christians and especially of the monks. Like the athletes, they submitted themselves to a hard training regimen and a strict diet. Their diet, however, did not consist of eating lots of meat to develop their muscles, but of disciplining their bodies by continuous deprivation.

Christians saw a likeness between their martyrs, who were executed in the arena, and the Greek athletes of the combat sports. Before entering their final battle, martyrs, like athletes, had to undress. Whereas athletes proudly shouted their names to the jury, christians identified themselves as "I am a Christian". They too had to persevere to the last gasp and they were spurred on by their (christian) supporters, like the boxers in the stadion. When they held out to the end, they gained victory and received a victory crown, the "crown of the martyrs", which is often represented in christian art in later times. In the martyrs' acts, it is often stressed that this crown, unlike the crown of Olympia, never withers. Palm branches too are represented as symbols of victory for both athletes and martyrs. And christan "athletes" received eternal glory, not only with the human public, but also with god in heaven.

Athlete crowned by Nike ----------------------------- Martyr crowned by the angels

© KU Leuven, 2012