The modern Olympic Games have long been a hotbed of political activity and protest. In contrast to what Pierre de Coubertin thought the games should be, the games may be best remembered for the times of dissent. Think of the games most people can identify. The Berlin Olympics (1936) almost did not see the United States team compete out of protest against Nazi policies; instead they are famous for Hitler’s anger over the victories by Jesse Owens. The enduring image of the 1968 games in Mexico City is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their raised, black-gloved fists in support of human rights. The Munich games of 1972 should be remembered for names like Frank Shorter, Olga Korbut, and Mark Spitz; instead they are best known for the Black Septembrist massacre of the Israeli team. Eight years later the Moscow Olympics were missing 64 delegations, including the United States, most in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In response, the Soviet bloc boycotted the Los Angeles games in 1984. Even the most recent Summer Games in Beijing were not without controversy, with many protests over China’s continuing occupation of Tibet. For an event that was supposed to bring nations and athletes together, the modern Olympics have had more than their share of controversy.
But then, considering the history of the original Greek games, this should have been expected. Because of the modern Olympics, most people are aware of the original Olympic games, named for Mount Olympus where they were held. Many people are unaware, though, that other city-states competed to have the best athletes participate in their games. Perhaps the best-known rival of the Olympics was the Isthmian Games in Corinth. But controversy over the Olympic (and other games) went even deeper, to the religious level.
During the period of Herodian rule in Israel there were several factions of the Jewish elite. Perhaps the most famous, because of the accounts of the gospels, are the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Greek games affected even those sects.
The Pharisees (meaning “set apart”) stood for many things. Most notably, in relation to athletic competition, they stood for maintenance of Jewish laws and customs. One objection to the games was simply that they were an aspect of Greek philosophy, including the idealization of humanism as opposed to elevation of God. Part of that philosophy included nude competition in the games. Athletes would work on their physiques and show them off by oiling their bodies. (Not that such a thing happens today.) The Jewish traditionalists could not compete nude, so they would, for the most part, ignore the games. A notable exception was the apostle Paul, who appears to have been a fan of athletic competition.
The Sadducees were the financially elite of Israel. To maintain their position they advocated assimilation of Greek culture into Jewish life. This included the games. It is even reported (by the Pharisees) that some Sadducee men would surgically have their circumcisions reversed so that they could compete in the games without standing out from the rest of the athletes.
Their respective positions on athletic competition were minor compared to other issues of the day. The Sadducees died out after the destruction of the Temple (since the Temple worship was the one central fact holding them together). The Olympic games outlasted them by about 200 years. Nevertheless, even in a remote part of the Roman Empire, such as Jerusalem, the Olympic and Isthmian games had a polarizing effect even two millennia ago.