Medals, life and faith

Testimonies of some European chaplains at the Winter Olympics

They move about the Olympic Village like athletes, trainers and coaches, they too dressed in their respective national tracksuits, but they aren’t budding Olympic champions. They could be defined as “spiritual trainers”: they are the chaplains of the Olympic squads at Vancouver. Many teams indeed have one or more chaplains in their suite, depending on the various faiths of the athletes, clear sign of a spiritual need that accompanies the sports-men and -women of any kind of sport. To respond to this need, the organizing Committee has placed multi-faith centres at the disposal of the participants in the Winter Olympics. The Rev. David Wells is their coordinator: “The Centres provide services for the five main confessions, a place for personal prayer and meditation, spiritual support and counselling, comfort and help in moments such as accidents and mourning, as in the case of the death of the Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili. Dedication – he adds – is not a guarantee of success in sport; otherwise most athletes would win. Having faith means having the support of God and continuing to pursue one’s own objectives, in sport as in life, whether one wins gold or not”.A particular prayer. Father Jörg Walcher, former professional snowboarder, has been Swiss chaplain at the World championships and Olympic Games since 2003. He officiates the services that are open to athletes of all nations: “Apart from mass, which is celebrated twice each day, we dedicate ourselves to biblical studies, prayer and adoration; priests, moreover, are available for personal meetings. I’m surprised by the fact that prayer is an integral part of the preparation of many athletes. One Christian athlete in particular struck me: a few days ago he asked me to pray not for his own event, on the following morning, but for his team-mate, so that he might understand that Christ is the Saviour. Kumaritashvili’s death was a tragedy for everyone. The whole Olympic community came together in expressing its closeness to Nodar’s family and friends and to the whole Georgian team”.“Losing isn’t a tragedy”. Father Bernhard Maier, member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, chaplain of the Austrian National teach and in charge of pastoral care for sport in Austria, with his fifteen years of experience, may be considered a veteran of the Olympics: “The tragedy of Kumaritashvili was a shock for us all, and so many people felt the need to ask us priests for words of encouragement. I remember so clearly another terrible moment during the Games in Calgary in 1988, when an Austrian doctor died. If it’s true that the Olympics are inspired by a longing for peace, justice and fellowship, at times the message they transmit is not positive. Safety, for instance, is not always protected as it should be: luges and bobsleighs now reach excessive speeds that can lead to tragic events like the death of Kumaritashvili. The public gets a kick from extreme conditions and the organization caters to the tastes of the public, instead of ensuring that the games protect the safety of the participants and have respect for man”. The same goes for the competitive spirit: “what counts alone is winning medals, not the participation. I think it would be very worthwhile to attribute greater value to those who are placed after first, second and third, down to the fifteenth place, why not? If the atmosphere remains so fraught with tension, so exasperated by the need to win at all costs, we run the risk of friendship and healthy competition being crushed by personal affirmation: wishing to win is normal, everyone exerts him/herself to win first place, but losing isn’t the tragedy it is painted by the advertising media”. Three values. “There are so many athletes – says Fr. Walcher – who have spared no effort to reach the Olympics, though knowing they won’t reach the ambitious goals of others. Nonetheless they are happy, because they know they have given their best. Christian athletes find in Jesus the best example, because he sacrificed himself for us. Three values emerge from the experience of the Olympic Games, and we need to express them also in our daily life: excellence: we must always give the best of ourselves, not only to win, but to improve ourselves; friendship, which enables us to consider sport as a means to understand our neighbour and go towards him; and respect for oneself and for others”. The same commitment. “The dream of every athlete – emphasizes in turn Fr. Mario Lusek, chaplain of the Italian national team at the Games – is to participate in an Olympic event: if winning is the greatest objective for anyone, being able to be protagonists is a unique opportunity in itself. Sport basically recounts life and does so in the most unexpected ways: with a victory or with a defeat, with joy but also with suffering. Knowing how to win thanks to personal talent and skill and knowing how to hold one’s head high in defeat, because no one should ever feel himself a loser, are born from the same commitment: that of struggling against one’s own limitations, overcoming obstacles, and practising the humility that does not seek applause but that makes a person great irrespective of results”.

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