Sports

In secular France, chaplains prepare to provide Olympians with spiritual support during the Games

PARIS — (AP) — As athletes rev up their training and organizers finalize everything from ceremonies to podiums before the Paris Olympics, more than 120 faith leaders are preparing for a different challenge — spiritually supporting some 10,000 Olympic athletes from around the world, especially those whose medal dreams will inevitably get crushed.

“We’ll need to bring them back to earth, because it can feel like the end of the world after working on this goal for four or five years,” said Jason Nioka, a former judo champion and deacon who’s in charge of the largest contingent of Olympic chaplains, about 40 Catholic priests, nuns and lay faithful.

Ordained and lay representatives from the five major global religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism — have been working together for months to set up a shared hall in the Olympic village outside Paris.

There, they will provide some worship services, prayers and, above all, a non-judgmental listening ear to any athletes or staff in need, regardless of faith.

“We’re not there to have them win,” said Anne Schweitzer, who’s coordinating about three dozen Protestant chaplains, the second-largest group. “My goal is to have a Christian witness there, people who embody the love and care of Jesus, for the athletes who are under so much pressure.”

There’s a history of high demand for Olympic chaplains. Requests exceeded 8,000 in the pre-pandemic Games, organizers say, ranging from mental health concerns to a pre-competition blessing to coping with a sudden death in the family back home.

But this year's chaplains are training for even more complex challenges, from complying with France's secularism laws that strictly prescribe the role of religion in public spaces to preparing for any spillover from two major conflicts raging not far away, the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war, especially in an era of increased activism by athletes.

“I see our mission as protecting them in their fragility,” said the Rev. Anton Gelyasov, archpriest of the Greek-Orthodox Metropolis of France, who’s leading more than two dozen Christian Orthodox chaplains for the Games. “Second, it’s to give witness that we are present, not only as ‘my church’ but as ‘religions,’ and that it’s good that we are together.”

Indeed, the behind-the-scenes dealmaking to accommodate different religions as well as different cultural, national and liturgical traditions within each faith reveals podium-worthy teamwork from the all-volunteer chaplain corps.

Each religion got 50 square meters (538 square feet) of the tent-like structure that’s being constructed and furnished in the village by the Paris Games organizing committee, with a basic mandate to welcome athletes and provide worship information.

Then, the Jewish and Muslim leaders decided to set up their spaces next to each other, as “an image and example” — in the words of Rabbi Moshe Lewin — that they can coexist even at times of great geopolitical tensions.

Buddhists and Hindus, with the fewest expected adherents, donated half their spaces to the Christians, who will have about 100 chaplains in rotation to serve Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.

Next comes the interdenominational diplomacy. The Muslim space will be divided by screens so that men and women can perform daily prayers separately, respecting diverging practices within Islam globally, said Najat Benali, president of the organization Coordination of Muslim associations of Paris, who is preparing the Muslim chaplaincy.

Christians compromised on the kinds of crucifixes and icons they’ll bring to the hall — without images of Jesus on the cross, for instance, to respect Protestant sensitivities. Buddhists will have Buddha statues and cushions for meditation, but are striving to strike a balance between the utter simplicity of the Zen tradition and the bright colors of the Tibetan one, said Luc Charles, a Zen monk who’s also a taekwondo instructor and the lead hospital chaplain of the Buddhist Union of France.

Little of that wealth of traditions will be visible from the outside — intentionally in a country where signs of faith are largely barred from public institutions. The hall itself won't be at the center of the village, and signs pointing to it will be discreet so as not to inconvenience non-believers, said Jeanne Le Comte du Colombier, the Paris Games committee's project manager for the multifaith center.

While the Olympics are no place for proselytism, several faith leaders said they wish they could do more outreach in the village, especially for athletes from countries without freedom of religion who might hesitate to come to the hall for counseling or a blessing.

Faith leaders are also forming a network of religious institutions from mosques to parishes outside the athletes' village and in the other French cities hosting competitions, like Marseille and Lyon. These will have special opening hours and multilingual services for athletes, though security won't be as tight as it will be in the village itself.

France’s Catholic Bishops Conference has launched a nationwide “Holy Games” initiative. Since last September, it has set up the “Our Lady of Athletes” chapel in an iconic downtown Paris church, La Madeleine. The faithful can light candles with inspirational sports-related quotes or enter prayer petitions in a tablet with a direct link to a monastic community.

Holy Games is also working to bring disadvantaged communities like the homeless and migrants into the Olympics festivities that risk pushing them farther to the margins, said the project's director, Isabelle de Chatellus.

Some teams are also expected to bring their own chaplains. But faith leaders say athletes might still prefer going to the chaplains’ hall for sensitive issues.

They’re preparing for hearing about possible cases of abuse within athletes’ team, by striving to have equal numbers of male and female chaplains present, for example. And while most denominations will offer some form of peace prayer and pledge to welcome all athletes who seek them, they’re readying for possible flareups between those whose countries are at war.

“The geopolitical situation will have an impact on athletes, but the Olympic Games provide the incredible opportunity of meeting the other,” said Lewin, special advisor to the chief Rabbi of France and vice president of the Conference of European Rabbis, who will serve as a Jewish chaplain.

“We do worship, not politics,” Benali echoed him. “We will listen and explain we’re there to accompany the athletes. We’re not good resources to address geopolitics.”

Part of that spiritual accompaniment will stem from how each denomination defines the role of health, the human body and thus sports. Many religious texts describe the body as a temple of the spirit, making it a moral duty to take care of good health.

Many also see a parallel between pews and bleachers in spiritual values like dedication, perseverance and self-sacrifice.

"Sports give values that allow me to live a faith rooted in Christ," said Nioka, 28, who will be ordained a priest a month before the opening ceremony.

Before a race, athletes might especially benefit from Christian Orthodox tradition, given its emphasis on what Gelyasov called “spiritual combat,” a daily fight against sin.

“If you don’t advance, you go backwards. One has to always make progress,” he explained.

After a race, a Buddhist meditation could help with detachment instead of focusing on the pressure of giving “an almost superhuman performance,” in Charles’ words.

“We have received this body, this life, but in the end it’s a superior energy that decides,” the Zen monk said.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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