Faith of Olympic Proportions

Lia Neal, bottom, and Isla Hutchinson Maddox, seniors at Convent of the Sacred Heart School in New York City. Both qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in June, and Lia advanced to t he 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (CNS photo/Juliana Thomas, courtesy Sacred Heart High School)
Religion has been a part of the Olympic games since, well, always. The first Olympic games trace back to 776 B.C. when events tied to festivals celebrating Zeus, the most important Olympic god and father of humanity. Olympia, Greece, the site of the ancient games, served as a meeting place for worship and religious practice, while the sporting events — wrestling, running, javelin, boxing, and horse and chariot races — were dedicated to the gods.

Faith at today’s Olympics

A couple thousand years later, the Olympics look like much more of a secular celebration of sport, but given the myriad of nations included, a celebration of religious and cultural diversity as well. Members of the Olympic committee have dedicated themselves to the spirit of peace by working to be as inclusive as possible of those participating. The Rev. Duncan Green, head of the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy Services, explained why tolerance is essential: “Given the diversity of London and the rest of the UK, it’s important for us to ensure that the Olympic and Paralympic Games are inclusive and involve all communities. All our plans for athletes, media, spectators, and our work force are developed so that all faiths are represented. Everyone, whatever their religious or ethnic background, should feel they can play a part in the world’s greatest sporting events.”

Athletes in the Olympic village who might be in need of a little prayer before a high-stakes competition have plenty of places to turn. The London Organising Committee reported 193 chaplains, including priests, clerics, rabbis, laypeople, and other religious leaders, are serving the athletes (and volunteers and journalists) throughout the games. A multi-faith center in Olympic park has rooms specific to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths, and Zoroastrians, Jains, and Baha’i will share space as well. Chaplains rotating through the multi-faith center are available for counseling and conversation, religious services, and spiritual support for athletes facing the pressure of the world watching their every move.

For many of the Olympic athletes in London, God is very much a part of the games. Several Olympians have received attention for their faith. American track star Lolo Jones is an outspoken evangelical Christian who prays before competitions and tweets frequently about God @lolojones. Equestrian Kenki Sato, who represents Japan in the games, lives as a Buddhist monk and begins each day with prayer. Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman helped team USA win its first team gold medal since 1996 with her floor routine set to the Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila.

With so many devout athletes, the International Olympic Committee works to be as accommodating as possible to diverse beliefs. Most notably, Saudi Arabia’s first female athletes received special permission to compete in hijabs, the traditional Islamic headscarf. This year, Sikh athletes are allowed to carry the ceremonial kirpan, a three-inch sheathed knife, under their clothes, though they’re not allowed to wear turbans in soccer, as FIFA deemed head coverings unsafe in the sport. In the Olympic cafeterias, officials work to ensure the competitors have appropriate food — be it pork-free, beef-free, kosher, halal, or anything else. Bibles and prayer books are readily available throughout the village.

Olympic Ramadan

The timing of this summer’s Olympics is particularly challenging for the 3,000-plus Muslim athletes competing. The London games fall during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time for spiritual reflection and increased devotion. During Ramadan, which began on July 19, Muslims are expected abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours, presenting an obvious physical disadvantage to those competing. The sick, elderly, and travelers can postpone their fasts, and many religious leaders have extended the exemption to the athletes at the Olympics. Still, the decision is up to the individual. Morocco’s men’s soccer team have all pledged to fast during the games. However, marathon runner Methkal Aby Drais from Jordan decided not to continue his fast after seeing a negative effect on his training. Many Muslims have postponed their fasts until after competition, and others chose to do charity work or make donations in place of fasting.

As we enter the final week of the 2012 Olympic games and the drama of competition continues to unfold, we watch as athletes’ faith backgrounds shape their Olympic experiences. For the fit and the faithful, an unwavering spirituality, regardless of outcome, make their participation in the games a true blessing.