When he stood up, she asked him if he was praying for victory. Patton exclaimed, "Hell no, I'm praying that I do my best." - Patton
Chaplains in the locker room. Pointing skyward after a home run. Doesn't it just drive you nuts when you hear an athlete say, "Jesus Christ threw that touchdown pass"? Really, how much can the King of Kings care about the success or failure of a bunch of athletes competing for nothing other than Pride and Greed, two deadly sins? I think lots of us roll our eyes when we look at these wanton displays of fair-weather faith (who thanks Jesus when he loses?), but athletes continue putting words in JC's mouth, and probably will until the End of Days.
Then again, so do I. Whenever I'm locked in mortal combat in a multiplayer game, competing with some other player thousands of miles away for nothing other than Pride (and if it's an MMOG with free looting, Greed), I toss a silent prayer for victory and bragging rights to the ether. Me, a confirmed agnostic - and a hypocrite.
But something tells me I'm not alone. If pro athletes are thanking Jesus, and I'm thanking Possible Higher Power Maybe Who Knows, something tells me quite a few of us look to the heavens for help, even when we're just, well, goofing off and playing games. And there's a reason beyond the metaphysical for doing so. Since the dawn of civilization, sports and games have been tied closely to the gods we worship far more tangibly than hoping Animus Cristi is smiling down on the big game.
Here, by region, are a few of the games we would have been playing alongside high clergy in past lifetimes. You know, if you believe in reincarnation.
No sense in getting off on an obscure foot. The Greek Ancient Olympics are the most famous marriage of play and faith on record. Dating back to 776 B.C., the first Olympiad has numerous mythological origins. The first makes mention of Pelops, the king of Olympia who killed King Oenomaus of Pisa (son of Ares) during a chariot race. Pelops went on to get the girl, Oenomaus' daughter, and live happily ever after. To celebrate, the first ever Olympic Games were thrown. A second story tells of demigod Heracles winning a footrace in Olympia. After the race, he decreed that a race should be held there every four years. Another credits the origin of the games to the Spartans throwing a similar event a couple hundred years before, in order to appease the gods before a battle. In one story, Zeus himself gets involved; it's told he inaugurated the first Olympiad in commemoration of his defeat of the titan Cronus.
The games were held in Olympia, a high-holy area for the Greeks. During the events, priestesses of Demeter were on hand to oversee the games. To honor the games, Greek sculptor Phidias constructed a 40-foot statue of Zeus made in ivory and gold. Additionally, if the games were in some way corrupted - if athletes took money or someone invaded Olympia as part of a territorial dispute - it was considered blasphemous. And perhaps most telling how closely the Olympics were tied to Greek religion, the ancient games were abandoned in the 392 A.D., when the Christian emperor Theodosius I was picking apart the remnants of paganism in Roman culture.
Of course, the Romans weren't without religious games themselves. The Secular Games, which featured animal sacrifices and ceremonies in addition to sporting contests, were held roughly every 100 years to celebrate each new generation. The procedure of the Games demanded a new ceremony to be held after the last person to witness the previous one died, literally celebrating the death-rebirth cycle.
The first Games were held in celebration of the miraculous recovery of a man named Valerius' three children during a Roman plague; they were cured by drinking water from a place called Tarentum. Valerius returned to Tarentum and made sacrifices to Pluto, the god of the underworld, and Prosperina, the goddess of spring and rebirth, to give thanks. Succeeding Games were dedicated to Pluto and Prosperina, as well as lesser gods of disease, the thinking being they would be too busy watching the revelry to create new plagues.