Olympics – part 1

Next year’s Olympics are to be held in China and the world is in uproar. How can the global community extend the honor of hosting the Olympics to one of the worst tyrannies on earth? Does China represent the “Olympic spirit” of fairness and brotherhood? Hearing such talk, it is hard to decide whether to laugh or cry! To Jews, the Olympics epitomize the worst in mankind since their origin in ancient Greece and since their revival in the late-nineteenth century.

The original games held in Olympia of ancient Greece were as much idolatrous ritual as a sporting event. Although no one knows exactly how and why the games originated in about 2991/776 BCE, most legends connected with it involve Greek gods; the games themselves were an amalgam of athletics and avodah zarah. Even the site chosen for the games was sited near an idolatrous sanctuary famed for its monstrous, twelve-meter high idol that was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Almost half the event was devoted to rituals.

The second evil of the Olympics was its inordinate glorifying of a bunch of half-dressed (or worse) youngsters careening around a track. So important were the Olympics that dates were recorded according to Olympiads, that is, the four-year periods that separate one Olympics from the next. For example, one solar eclipse is recorded as occurring in the third year of the 117th Olympiad.

In the same vein, the stadion, the length of the 190-meter stadium used for races, became a standard measure of distance and is particularly famous as being used to record one of the greatest ancient Greek measurements in history.

This was when Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the world using nothing but his brain, a well and a stick in about 3561/200 BCE. He correctly calculated that to get around the world a person would need to walk 252,000 stadia, equal to about 25,000 miles.

Olympic heroes were idolized by sculpture, poetry and generous monetary prizes while even royal families considered it an honor to take part. For example, Nero of the Roman Claudian-Julio dynasty once won a ten horse chariot race. Then he merited true glory after traveling to Eretz Yisroel in order to destroy the second Beis HaMikdash. Realizing that he would be severely punished for such a heinous transgression, he fled, became a ger, and one of his descendants was R. Meir Baal HaNeis (see Gittin 56a).

The mania for sport epitomized by the Olympics was a major factor in corrupting Jews at various times. The book of Maccabim (II 4:7-17) describes how the dishonest Jason corrupted Jews through sport after bribing his way into becoming the Kohen Gadol:

“But (King) Seleucus died, and when Antiochus Epiphanes succeeded him on the throne, Chonyo’s brother, Jason, acquired the high priesthood through corruption. During an interview, he promised the king 360 talents of silver as well as 80 talents from another source of income. In addition, he agreed to pay 150 more, if he received authority to establish a gymnasium and a youth club to train in it and to enroll men in Yerushalayim as honorary citizens of Antioch (capital of Greek Syria).

“When Jason received the kings’ approval and came into office he immediately initiated his countrymen into the Greek way of life… He quickly established a gymnasium at the very foot of the fortress (and adjacent to the Beis HaMikdash) where he induced the noblest young men to wear a Greek hat (like that worn by the Greek idol of sport). The craze for Hellenism and foreign customs reached such a pitch… that the kohanim… hastened, at the signal for the discus-throwing, to take part in the unlawful exercises on the athletic field. They despised what their ancestors had regarded as honors, while they highly prized what the Greeks esteemed as glory.”

Josephus (Antiquities XV 8:1) relates that evil King Hurdus had acted similarly about a century before the Churban in order to gain favor with the Romans.

“It was on this account that Herod (Hurdus) revolted from the laws of his country, and corrupted their ancient constitution, by the introduction of foreign practices… First, he appointed solemn games to be celebrated every fifth year, in honor of Caesar, and built a theater at Jerusalem and a very great amphitheater in the plain. Both of them were costly works but opposite to the Jewish tradition; for we have had no such shows delivered down to us as fit to be used or exhibited by us, yet did he celebrate these games every five years, in the most solemn and splendid manner… but to natural Jews, this was no better than a destruction of these customs for which they had so great a veneration.”   Not satisfied with creating Olympic style games in Eretz Yisroel, Hurdus financed the Olympic games of Greece after personally taking part in the 192nd games either as a combatant or president (depending on differing translations).

As Josephus reports in The Jewish Wars (I 21:12), “The favors he gave to the Eleans (where the Olympics were held) was a donation not only to all of Greece but to all the inhabited earth as far as the glory of the Olympic games extended. Because when he saw that they were come to nothing, due to lack of funds and that the only remnant of ancient Greece was, so to say, disappearing, he not only became one of the combatants (or president) in that return of the fifth-year games where he happened to be present while sailing to Rome, but also gave them financial revenues in perpetuity so that his memory as a combatant (president) there should never fail.”

The Olympic Games persisted for well over a thousand years until Emperor Theodosius I of Rome condemned them as paganism and outlawed them at the end of the Fourth Century.

Two people were mainly responsible for resuscitating the Olympics after a hiatus of 1,500 years. First was a Greek, Evangelos Zappas, who sponsored a mini-version in Athens in 5619/1859 and two larger events in subsequent years. The International Olympic Committee that organizes the event until our time was founded by a sport fanatic, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, who believed that sport has a mystical power to increase people’s morals and that bringing the world together to compete in the Olympics would somehow help overcome international dispute. As the “Olympic Creed” expresses it: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

However, as time rolled on, it became increasingly clear that the Olympics generally do not further world peace nor improve peoples’ morals.

The most infamous case of this was Nazi Germany’s cynical utilization of the 5696/1936 Games to further her world dominion. As the American consul in Berlin warned: “To the [Nazi] Party and to the youth of Germany, the holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 has become the symbol of the conquest of the world by National Socialist doctrine. Should the Games not be held in Berlin, it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer.”

Also, nothing served Hitler better than having the Olympics as a two-week showcase of German Gemütlichkeit (geniality), in order to fool the world into thinking the Germans were peace loving beer-swillers. As he hypocritically declared at the time: “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.” Could a person of such high sounding sentiment be planning a world war?

Actually, Berlin had been chosen as the Olympics venue in 5691/1931, before Hitler came into power. However, after winning the elections in January 5693/1933, one of the first decrees the Nazis instituted was an “Aryans only” sports policy and banned all Jewish and Gypsy participants from German sport organizations. Now, the question was, should the world take a stand against Germany’s anti-Semitism and boycott Nazi Germany’s Olympics or turn a blind eye to tyranny for the sake of sport? Representative of the second attitude was Avery Brundage, president of the US Olympic Committee, who argued that “politics has no place in sport.”

Others were less complaisant and movements to boycott the games rose up worldwide, especially in the United States. When the powerful Amateur Athletic Organization (AAO) of the US decided to boycott the games, Germany folded and invited one, single Jew to join their teams. This was Helene Mayer, Germany’s blonde, blue-eyed woman fencing champion whom Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, had lauded as a perfect Aryan specimen until discovering, to his horror, that her father was a Jew. Mayer was the only “Jew” permitted to participate in Germany’s teams. This hypocritical move pacified the AAO and the burgeoning boycott movements collapsed.

To appease the world, Nazis hid away anti-Semitic signs and posters during the weeks of the Olympics and the rabid, Jew-baiting German press momentarily fell quiet. German streets filled with a strange mix of the Olympic six-circle symbol representing the unity of the world’s continents and the aggressive Nazi eagle and swastika.

Perhaps the most wrenching moment of the wretched affair was when Helene Mayer flashed the Nazi salute as she was presented with a silver medal on the podium. Reportedly, she was made to understand that if she refused to conform to this standard practice, revenge would be taken on her family.

This is how the 5696/1936 Olympics, like the Olympics of the ancient past, helped further the ruin of Klal Yisroel. Far more remains to be said about this subject…

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