When we think about the history of the Olympics we tend to think about definitive moments in sporting history: Nadia Comăneci’s perfect 10; Usain Bolt’s world records, Michael Phelps’s cache of medals, and so on. If we are taking the long view we might think of ancient Greece and the religious sporting events dedicated to Zeus at Olympia. But, in fact, our modern Olympics owe as much to a Victorian aristocratic athletic movement known as “muscular Christianity” as it does to any of the ancient Greeks.
The first Olympics, we all know, were held in ancient Greece. The Greek ascribed mythological origins to their games and permitted any freeborn Greek men to participate. The athletes were underpaid, the clothing was skimpy, and the resulting audience mostly male (it was a capital offense for a married woman to enter the Sanctuary of Zeus on the days of the games). While there were footraces for unmarried women, known as the Heraean Games, the Olympics themselves were mostly a male affair.
The ancient Olympic Games came to an end in 393 CE, when the emperor Theodosius I suppressed them as part of his campaign to make Christianity the state religion. But if Christianity was responsible for putting a stop to the games it was also responsible for their rebirth. Because it was under the influence of a new movement known as muscular Christianity that the modern Olympics were founded.
Muscular Christianity—the idea that sports, and team sports in particular, have spiritual and moral benefits—burst to life in England in the latter half of the 19th century. Its origins owe much to the Industrial Revolution and the rising wealth of the upper classes, but if one man can be credited for Christian athleticism, it is Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the Rugby School, an all-boys private secondary school in the early 19th century. Arnold believed that in order to create Christian gentlemen he had to replace bad impulses with good. Arnold himself wasn’t a particular fan of sport but he preferred it to fighting or poaching. If you exhaust young men and promote the idea of sportsmanship, you will keep them out of trouble.
Arnold’s influence was felt most acutely in Thomas Hughes’s 1857 Tom Brown’s School Days, a novel that extolled the idea of athletic chivalry and the character-developing properties of athletics. In the novel, Tom’s character is fashioned by participation in sports. Hughes’s book made Rugby famous and sold the importance of Christian athletics to rest of the English-speaking world.
Organized games spread throughout English private schools and further afield to the United States. In a series of lectures delivered in America in 1874, Charles Kingsley told audiences that the body is the temple of the living God and that it was their duty to recapture the Greek heroic form through “drama, lyric, sculpture, music, gymnastics, the dignity of man.”
Proponents of muscular Christianity traced its origins to the writings of the Apostle Paul, who used athletic metaphors to promote adherence to Christ. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a family that adhered to the principles of muscular Christianity. Despite suffering from asthma, he was encouraged to engage in strenuous physical activity and embrace the robust masculinity inherent in the Protestant Christianity of his day. Elements of the philosophy stuck with him. In a speech he gave in 1903 to the Holy Name Society, then-Colonel Roosevelt said, “I do not want to see Christianity professed only by weaklings.”
Arguably the best-known offshoot of the muscular Christianity philosophy was the founding of the Young Men’s Christian Organization in 1844. George Williams, a London draper, was concerned about the lack of wholesome activities for young men and disturbed that urban workers spent their time in pubs or brothels. He and his friends established the YMCA to promote a healthy “body, mind, and spirit.” The YMCAs promoted evangelical Christianity in their services and sportsmanship in the gyms. In fact, the YMCA is credited with producing the modern versions of basketball and volleyball.
What was common to all of these figures was the idea that athletic endeavors could be overlaid with morality and masculinity. In particular, advocates of muscular Christianity thought that focusing young men on athletics would distract them from the perceived vices of masturbation and homosexuality.
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894 he did so with muscular Christianity in mind. He visited Rugby in 1886 and was deeply impressed with their athletic philosophies. Professor John Lucas told the XVth Session of the International Olympic Committee, “There is absolutely no way to adequately understand sport philosophy in the western world without knowing something of nineteenth century Victorian ‘Muscular Christianity.’”
But promoting masculinity and the male form wasn’t just about cultivating gentlemanly personality and virtue; it was also about producing leaders and rulers. By the turn of the 20th century, muscular Christianity was connected to colonialism, missionary activity, and even the success of the British Empire. In 1901 Cotton Minchin praised the English Protestant men traveling the world with gun in one hand and Bible in the other.
The long-lasting effects of muscular Christianity are felt outside of Olympic centers and “the Y.” Some critics have observed that the hyper-masculinizing of Christianity during the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic continues to foster patriarchy in Christian communities today. Professor Ludger Viefhues has argued that the persistent commitment to the idealized muscular male in Protestant circles can explain the baffling popularity of Donald Trump among evangelical voters.
In sum we have Victorian moralists to blame, for macho-Christian gender roles, but we also have to thank them for volleyball, the pool down at the Y, and the spectacular feats of superhuman athleticism every two years.