Mormons and the Olympic Ideal

  • Share
  • Read Later

Olympic athletes on a building wrap appear to ski toward the Mormon Temple

As a Mormon teenager in the 1970s, I was constantly admonished by church elders to keep my body strong and pure — free of alcohol, drugs and nicotine, and even of the caffeine in Coca-Cola. My spiritual health, according to church doctrine, was contingent on my physical health, as if my soul and my bloodstream were connected. These teachings were outlined in the Word of Wisdom, a crucial prophetic revelation given to Joseph Smith, the church's founder. Smith had a unique conception of God. Far from being some misty omniscient presence, God was a being of flesh, bone and hair who'd once been a man but became, in time, through a mysterious process known as "eternal progression," a kind of superman. Lay off the six-packs, cigarettes and sodas, and I could be one too someday, I learned. As an aid in this process, the chapel where I worshipped adjoined a full-sized, well-equipped gymnasium that put my high school facility to shame.

Few Christian sects that I know of place such an emphasis on physical development, or link it so closely to moral virtue, which makes Mormon Utah a fitting setting for the Olympic Games. The athletic prowess revered by ancient Athenians is equally important to modern Mormons. Steve Young, the Hall-of-Fame-bound NFL quarterback and a distant relation of Brigham Young, was, for the duration of his career, the quintessence of Mormon manhood?an earthly model for aspiring gods. No wonder that Utah, in survey after survey, has ranked first in the nation in longevity and last in the prevalence of certain diseases.

What's ironic about all this is that the Mormons, by preserving in its purest form the Greco-Roman worship of the body, have in some ways outstripped the Olympic athletes themselves. Good health is no longer, and hasn't been for some time now, an Olympic ideal. Performance trumps all. Between their indulgence in harrowing training regimens that warp young athletes' sexual development and the widespread use of drugs and supplements meant to induce short bursts of speed and power, a lot of today's would-be medallists might be regarded, in Mormon terms, as defiled and deficient. The bulked-up, souped-up Olympian may break world records, but is he or she fit to enter Mormon heaven, or even serve as a model for classical sculpture? In many cases, no. He's built like a Greek god, goes the old saying, reminding us that the spirit and the physique have long been seen as mirroring each other. That mirror is cracked now. Too many modern Olympians are built less like gods than monsters — or monster trucks. And a few of them behave like monsters, too. Superhuman or sub? One sometimes wonders. If the Olympic Movement is a religion — and in its rhetoric it often resembles one — then its definition of sainthood could use some work.

By preserving the link between vigor and virtue, muscles and morality, Mormon culture more perfectly embodies the old Olympic spirit than the Games do. Unfortunately, this achievement was compromised by the way in which Salt Lake City won the Games. By pursuing victory at all cost, the local boosters sullied their high standards in much the same way that steroid-popping athletes do. Purity was sacrificed to pragmatism. The Salt Lake City Olympic committee pulled a sort of financial Tanya Harding, hoping to rig the results in the arena by pulling shameful shenanigans in the alley. The Olympic flame may symbolize great things, but lately it's had a tendency to burn people.

None of this changes one essential fact: when the Olympians land in Salt Lake City, they'll be coming home, as surely as if they were visiting ancient Athens. Both cities are centered on temples and both believe that the body is a temple too.

It's an archaic teaching nowadays, and as kid who liked to share a beer with schoolmates who weren't bound by Mormon doctrine, I found it hard to follow. Still, it was something to shoot for, and by trying I probably moved an inch closer to future godhood than I would have had it not existed. Hey, a lot of Olympians fall short too. It's the attempt that matters, though. The struggle. One hopes that this struggle hasn't been abandoned yet — that deep inside all of our temples, that light still shines.