SEEKING A DEVINE EDGE : With 13,000 Competing for 250 Gold Medals, Athletes Look for a Little Help
Olympic athletes are packing churches, poring over Bibles and praying before the gun in hope of receiving some heavenly help.
With every day a test of skills and resolve, houses of worship for every faith are adding extra services to cope with the demand inside the Olympic Village.
“When you’re on that starting line you must have it all together to function at your best,” said the Rev. Peter Swaffield, a Protestant clergyman from Kent, England. “That means peace of mind as well as top physical condition.”
Swaffield and colleagues from the United States, New Zealand, France, Spain, Norway, Kenya, Brazil and West Germany have formed a “Chaplain’s Team.” They hold services three times a day at the village chapel in three different languages and are always available for those seeking assurance.
“I always say a prayer on the starting line,” said Courtney Brown, a Canadian track and field competitor in the 200-meter run. A Baptist, Brown said he’ll be at church the night before the showdown.
Many competitors, according to Swaffield, find that time in the chapel eases anxiety and sharpens performance. He said he also tries to add perspective to those who have funneled years into a single-minded quest for a gold medal.
“There are only 250 gold medals and more than 13,000 competitors,” he reminded the circle of athletes gathered for an informal morning talk. And for those who do attain victory, he pointed out life doesn’t stop at that pinnacle of triumph.
“There are other heights,” he said. “Enjoy the moment while you can but remember, there will always be another winner.”
Great Britain’s Janine Lawles, a canoeist and Anglican, said prayer is no substitute for training. That doesn’t stop her from seeking a bit of divine aid.
“God, I probably shouldn’t ask,” she prayed, “but if you could just help me a little bit.”
No chaplain is more sought than Madeline Manning Mims, who won a gold medal in the women’s 800 meters in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, a silver in the mile relay in 1972 and nothing in 1976.
“Any young athlete faces the same pressures I had to handle,” she said. “My job is to listen and share what they feel. The tension level is really high in the Olympics.”
Mims, 40, said athletes have a lot to talk about to somebody willing to listen. “Often they’re in conflict with their coaches.” As one who has experienced the elation of triumph and misery of defeat, Mims said she is in a position to empathize and “open up their minds.”
The Spanish Presbyterian Church is holding services every morning and twice on Sunday to bolster Spanish speakers. Father Padro Antonia has also started a special program called “Triunfadores,” or winners.
“It’s about how everyone is eager to win, to succeed in this world, but especially the athletes here,” he said.
At the Islamic Hall, Imam Yun Chang-yong told Pakistanis, “If you always keep in mind the teachings of Allah, he will help you to achieve your dream.”
The Olympics provide another opportunity, he said. “We’re not here for competition or medals only. We Muslims can use this event as an opportunity to show all non-Muslims what Muslims are really like.”
A Buddhist monk extolled the benefits of achieving a “calm and tranquil” mind. “Then you can naturally manifest ultimate power,” he told the athletes.
Many are candid about their reliance on faith.
“I brought my Bible with me,” said runner Carl Folkes, preparing himself for the mile relay. A Seventh Day Adventist from Toronto, Folkes said, “I read it every night in my room. I really believe it helps.”
For some, religion is providing hope even against enormous odds. David Goutchowanou, coach of Benin’s track and field team, cited the facts.
“Although our sprinter runs 100 meters at 10.29 seconds, it’s far above the world record. We finished with no medals in two previous Olympics, and things will not be different in Seoul.”