Article by Aristotle. Ch. Eftychiadis, Professor of History, Medical School of the University of Athens. From the Magazine “Tolmi” (Daring) of the Archdiocese of Athens, Issue 9, June 9, 2001, Pages 62 – 65.
The Olympic Games are internationally recognized as the continuation of the games of Ancient Olympia, where the Greek city-states, putting aside issues of war and every type of enmity, sought, under the shadow of the protection of the gods and in the spirit of peace, to project, through the games though elite sportsmen, the ideal of “the beautiful, the great and the true”. These peaceful athletic games had as a goal to teach the Greek people fair play and to subdue warlike confrontations. In this way, the ancient Olympic Games were closely connected with religious events and were part of the worship. In accordance with the purpose and context of the holy place where the games were held, there were also special protectors of these games, such Zeus and Apollo. Even later, when the games were gradually transformed into purely sport competitions, they did not stop being connected with religion and nor did they stop being done in honour of a deity.
Since their reinstatement in 1896, with the participation of the global community, the historical religious meaning and context of the Olympics Games is expressed through the ritual of lighting of the Olympic flame, which back then burnt all day and night, and the Olympic anthem/hymn, which is dominated by the figure of Apollo. For historical reasons, it is wonderful that the games maintain their intense religious spirit and remain friendly and peaceful. That spirit remains today and, at the level of the athletes, since our Olympic champions invoke the power of God in their ventures, not only verbally but also visibly with the sign of the Cross. This can be seen on television not only from Christian athletes, certainly, but also of non-Christian religions, which have their own way of calling on God. These same athletes despite their athletic, education, social, peaceful, political, cultures, national and global perspectives, attribute to the Olympic Games and its truly spiritual dimension, the highest ethical and godly value, exactly what our ancient “superstitious” forefathers and founders had wanted.
Modern Christian Greece, without eliminating the historical religious symbols of the Olympic Games, which mark the religiosity of these games and their spiritual dimensions, must make clear the presence of God whom it believes in and calls upon in all circumstances that concerns itself. Greece must seek and ask for a Holy Protector of the games and ask to place itself under his protection, for there is indeed a Saint of the Olympics and Stadiums, Saint Nektarios, which will now be presented.
Three years before the first contemporary Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, Saint Nektarios Kefalas of Aegina, the then former Metropolis of Pentapolis, in a text, “On Exercise” referred to the value and purpose of sports for young people. This speech was delivered by Saint Nektarios himself at the inauguration of the Gymnastic Association in Kimi, Evia on August 21, 1893.
This occurred only two years after the establishment of the Panhellenic Gymnastic Organization in 1891 in Athens and was treated as a purely private initiative on behalf of young people.
According to philosopher Aristotle “Thus Temperance and Courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency, and preserved by the observance of the mean”.
“Measured physical exercise has been considered in every civilized nation as a necessary undertaking and integral to follow, and a companion of every free and well-behaved citizen, and a true character of perfect education.” According to Saint Nektarios, the games had a spiritual perspective/destination to demonstrate/highlight “the man, perfectly educated practising arete/ virtue, in order to form good and virtue men.
He noted that the presence of Sports/Gymnastic Associations in Greece and Europe, which, as he said, serve as a nursery not only for sports but for the education of youth and predefines to highlight good and brave men” who will be “beneficial to their cities, their societies and their country… beneficial to their nation and to humanity in general.|
The meaning of the games and the end goal was the conquest of virtue obtained after great struggle and the sophrosyne/prudence, which was believed to be the “symbol of the healthy soul and mother of all virtues”. Aristotle calls the personified Virtue ‘nicest quarry’ , i.e. an object of strenuous effort and a result of devoted energies
Saint Nektarios gave so much attention to athletic organizations that he noted with emphasis that “in Europe the number of gymnastic clubs exceed the number of their schools”
Contests in ancient Greece – athletic, rhetorical, musical, poetic, and dramatic – were fields of outstanding performance and excellence. The ancient Greeks called this excellence arete. Arete was a basic concept in ancient Greek thought, not only a noble motive but also the conquest of agōn, namely the contest itself. It had various connotations – warlike, political, social, and moral – expressing a code of values, which defined the agonistic spirit. It denoted excellence, virtue and distinction.
It is worth noting that these pioneering positions of Saint Nektarios on athletic competitions, with the purpose of contributing to “true education and training”, the fruit born from his enlightened mind, coincide in time with the thoughts and efforts of the French baron, inspirer and proponent of the contemporary Olympic Games, which were inaugurated in 1896, with their first games in Athens, but which had been launched from 1892, with his speech in Sorbonne at the fifth anniversary of the Union of French Athletic Associations and with the affirmative decision of the Congress of the International Sports Associations in 1894. The detailed assessment of Saint Nektarios of athletic competitions and sports clubs is positions exactly in between two milestones of the living Olympic Games. It also coincides with the “Content of Philosophy of Olympism” which was revived and driven by P. De Coubertin when “he very soon discovered that the ancient Greeks, unlike their contemporaries, used the basic elements of conduction in competitions, which did not only grant to the young healthy and well trained bodies, but it also shaped their soul/psychic and spiritual world, with the result of becoming complete and useful citizens of society.
It coincides however with the general assessment that Olympism “oversees the overall education of the individual, by developing harmonically the spiritual, bodily and moral powers, to embrace the ideal of virtue espoused by the Ancient Greeks”. Saint Nektarios at this juncture of European re-awakening to the Olympic Games, addressed to the Greek
people with foresight manner about the Association of Kimi “You seek to walk on the steps of its forefathers”.
Alexander I at Olympia
Beyond the athletic placement and holy and spiritual prestige, the timely juncture of Saint Nektarios, as an analyst and proponent of the athletic competitions in Greece, with the preparation of the re-inauguration of the Olympic Games, which were to start in Athens, it leaves no margin to challenge Saint Nektarios as the protector and patron saint of the gymnastic sports and the Olympic Games at the ecclesiastical and national level.
In view of the existing difficulties, the project of organizing such large scale competitions, but also the problems and dangers which always linger at world events, the regular protection of the Saints, the disposition of the saints’ struggles and the protection of Saint Nektarios is imperative and desirable. His blessings towards the Sports Association of Kimi in 1893 accompanies all of the Athletic Associations in the world as well as the Olympic Games : “ I am certain that this sport club will receive the appropriate support …As it walks seamlessly toward the competitive stadium and the fulfilment of course of its intended great purpose”. May it be so!