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Stuart in the birdsnest

"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."

Bill Shankly, Liverpool Football manager

Soul sadness

Soul sadness: Olympic competitors have found the 2008 Games tougher than any to date

Stuart Weir, director of Verite Sport, and a chaplain at the Beijing Olympics reveals the frustrations of ministry in the Olympic Village

Right from the start, religion has been entwined with the Olympics. Olympia, their first venue was from 1000BC a shrine to the God Zeus and the Games were held in Zeus' honour until 394AD, when the Emperor Constantine banned them after declaring Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Centuries later, in the 1890s, Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games, deeply influenced by the fashion in Victorian England for "muscular Christianity". This is why, perhaps uniquely among major sports events, freedom of worship is enshrined in the Olympic charter. What it means in practice is that a religious centre is provided during the Games along with a team of accredited chaplains for the athletes.

Since the 1988 Olympic Games, the local organising committee has been charged with accrediting these teams of national and international chaplains. This year, however, the Beijing Organising Committee decided to accredit only Chinese chaplains. This is not the first time foreign chaplains have been banned from the Olympics - none were permitted by the Organising Committee for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and few non-Americans were allowed at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In the case of China, it is perhaps worth asking if this reflects a view that

The religious centre provided in Beijing was greatly puffed in the Chinese press. The China Daily, for example, ran an article on August 16, declaring that by that date, 665 athletes and officials from more than 50 countries and regions had visited the Religious Centre where they were served by 69 "professional religious service volunteers" kept busy "holding services around the clock". This appeared a mere two days after a Washington Post piece, of August 14, headlined: "Some Olympians dissatisfied with religious center" which spoke of a "quiet protest" by athletes and coaches complaining that both staffing and services fell "woefully short" of the promises made by Chinese organisers.

An American athlete was quoted who said the members of the US track and field had been "quite dissatisfied" with the centre. Mention was made of dissatisfied athletes "marching into" the centre to demand prayer in their own languages, aware that the much vaunted volunteers would be unable to comply- simply to make the point that the service was insufficient. A spokesman for the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch commented in the piece: "This is yet another example of IOC's failure to enforce and to stand up to China's efforts to roll back basic freedoms that have been taken granted at previous Olympics."

So how did teams manage to get round this on the ground? Some country delegations managed to get around the official policy by getting a known chaplain from their country into the village on day passes. However, day passes were restricted. Some unofficial chaplains have been receiving requests from their countries' athletes to lead Bible Studies or pray with them before competition but have only been able to gain access to the Village perhaps once every 4-5 days.

Much has been said concerning the publication of Bibles which have been available in the Religious Centre only in English and Chinese. One Religious Centre spokesman actually expressed his surprise at meeting Olympians who spoke neither English nor Chinese but declined the offer of Bibles written in other languages, made by one of the unofficial foreign chaplains.

For Olympians of faith, it has been harder to get the spiritual support they seek than at any previous Games. Yet despite the barriers placed there by the Chinese Authorities - for whatever reason - many Olympians have succeeded in meeting with a known chaplain from their country. Stories of Australian athletes, German rowers, British runners, Portuguese athletes, Brazilian basketball players, Kenyan Olympians meeting regularly with Christian pastors confirms this.

This month, my book "The Ultimate Prize - a Christian view of the Olympics" (Hodder, 2004) has been published in Beijing. Getting the book through the censors was a battle. Initially the publishers asked me to be available for some promotional events. Subsequently, they were cancelled - it was not felt wise for Christians to be too visible during the Olympic period. Yet another piece of the complex jigsaw of operating as Christians in China.

From Times Online August 25, 2008



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