When Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) made his way east conquering as he went, he left behind a legacy of Greek culture that would last for millennia. One hallmark of this Greek heritage were the gymnasiums spread from Egypt to modern-day Afghanistan. The gymnasium highlighted the athlete as the model of self-denial and discipline, indeed, as the ideal human form. Thus, it is not surprising that early Christians looked to athletics for analogies with the Christian life. In fact, the Apostle Paul himself had done so (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Several centuries after Paul, Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria drew one such analogy in a Festal letter sent out to all the churches under his care. Cyril, undoubtedly familiar with gymnasiums in the thoroughly Greek city of Alexandria, argued that Christians should show even more self-discipline than these athletes, since the rewards promised by God are greater than any mere passing glory. Moreover, Christians do not have a merely human trainer, but rather God Himself who promises to give us aid.
Now if these folk are thus disposed, it can only be the height of absurdity if we ourselves, before whom greater prizes are set, are not seen to rival their zeal, nor to strive to gain the upper hand, but hesitate and are worn down by our lack of resources, when we have from God such an abundance of aids which will render us victorious. For these others have the ability to defeat their opponents from their own experience and from their bodily strength, so that if any of them lacks these, he will be quite deprived of the joy of victory. But for us, the contest is not decided in this way; the situation is quite the reverse. If you lack strength, ask the contest judge, and you will receive it readily. And if your skill at wrestling is not what it should be, then the trainer is at hand who is an expert in sports. That is to say that God will supply the ability. And as for how to counter your opponents, that you will learn by examining holy Scripture. There you will find Paul’s words: "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). There you will hear with wondering ear the Psalmist singing and crying out to God, "In you will we push down our enemies, and in your name will we bring to naught them that rise up against us" [Ps. 44:5].1
1 Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letters 1-12, ed. John J. O’Keefe, trans. Philip R. Amidon, vol. 118 in Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 72-73.