Religion News Service reports that the Olympics themselves were originally a tribute to the Greek God Zeus.
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.
BBC News, on the other hand, gives us a more modern context in which to consider the Olympics and religion.
The Olympics throw up a range of religious issues that need to be confronted, from the religious obligations of Sikhs wearing daggers despite security concerns, Christians refusing to run on a Sunday, or the requirement for Muslims to observe the Ramadan fast, which this year coincides with the Games….
In 1935, the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, noted: “The first essential characteristic of the modern Olympics is that, like the Olympics of ancient Greece, they constitute a religion.”
During these games, in order to accommodate so many different faiths, there will be “a prayer room at every [Olympic] venue, the Olympic Village will have a large multi-faith center, with a common lounge and specific areas for the five largest faiths, managed by representatives of those faiths,” among other events and services.
As the BBC notes, this year, the games occur during the month of Ramadan in the Muslim calendar. CNN interviewed some Muslim athletes who will be competing in the games, regarding their decision to observe the fast, or to suspend it for the duration of the competition.
Hemeed Al Drie, is one of those athletes who will be breaking the fast in order to compete in the Judo competition. Al Drie, who represents the United Arab Emirates, notes:
Observant Muslims are supposed to fast during Ramadan, abstaining from all food and drink, even water, during daylight hours, then eating and drinking after sundown. Fasting for the month is a major religious obligation, one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
But Al Drie, 19, knows that fasting on days when he has up to six judo matches against the world’s best competitors would doom his chances of winning.
“If you don’t eat and you enter a competition, you might faint,” he said. That would lead to instant elimination.
Others are not so sure. One of Al Drie’s teammates, Khadijah Fahed Mohammed, a weightlifter, says that though the Olympics are important, “Fasting is a must…This is our chance. Ramadan just happened to be at the same time as the competition.”
For more on the 2012 Summer Olympics, visit the official site.