Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley - 13/08/2012

Good morning

The original Olympic Games were far from being a meaningless tribute to ancient pagan Gods - Zeus and his many relations. The ancient Greeks can still help us understand what has been happening over these last two weeks, if we shake their genuine insight into human nature free of its mythological language.

One thing stands out immediately. The world lost something immensely valuable when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I suppressed the original games in 394 AD. They were seen as promoting a rival belief system to Christianity.

If ever there was a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, this was it. They had been going for a thousand years, and they represented all that was most admirable about the ancient world. They were revived only as recently as 1896.

Technically the modern Games are secular. Unlike their ancient predecessors, they do not have any religious label, though their founder, Baron de Coubertin was Jesuit-educated and from a devoutly Catholic family. He believed there is an aspect to sport at the highest level which could be called spiritual.

Athletes are striving to reach and transcend their own limits. They all know this is not just about being as physically as fit as possible. The mental approach is crucial.

Yet if we look at their motivation, it isn't all about the glorification of the ego, and it certainly isn't about getting stinking rich as quickly as possible. Financial rewards, if they come, are incidental.

Call it "deferment of gratification" if you like, but often the gratification doesn't come at all, at least in the form of gold medals. For each winner there have to be lots of losers. They do it because sporting excellence is good in itself.

And that is what the ancient Greeks have been telling us, these last few weeks. The sight of mind and body struggling against their limitations in pursuit of perfection is immensely moving to watch, both in the Olympic Games and the Paralympics which are still to come.

The other thing we hear from the athletes themselves time and again is humility and gratitude. They think they are lucky - lucky to have been born with a special talent, lucky to have been spotted and coached, lucky to have been selected to take part in these Games.

They are humbled and inspired by the roar of the crowd, able to go further and faster than they have ever done before because they are part of something much bigger than themselves. And for that they are profoundly thankful.

What the Greeks knew, and what Baron de Coubertin wanted to bring back, is they are also, in the process, transformed and ennobled. And in honouring the creature thus, are we not also honouring the creator, whatever we call him?

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