As much as people try to avoid it, religion and politics have taken center stage in the 2008 Olympic games. The Israeli coach of the Russian basketball team made headlines recently by shaking hands with the captain of the Iranian team, the Jerusalem Post reports, in a show of interfaith support. The gesture occurred the day after an Iranian swimmer refused to race against an Israeli. President Bush then added his own dose of religious politics to the games in a speech saying, “No state, man, or woman should fear the influence of a loving religion.”
For many competitors in the Olympics, athletics and religion are inexorably linked. Josh McAdams, a Mormon American steeplechase competitor, told the Washington Post, “athletics is not only physical and mental but spiritual.” Unfortunately for McAdams, practicing that spirituality is difficult inside the Olympic Village, as China has banned many foreign chaplains from living with the athletes. China promised to provide their own religious leaders, but the Washington Post reports that religious facilities on the Olympic grounds are remote, often don’t have enough space for worshipers, and participants are getting frustrated by the inadequate language skills of the service leaders.
Private worship aside, athletes are also under threat from the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee, should they express their religion openly during the games. In another article for the Washington Post, Wang Baodong, a Chinese Government spokesperson said, “There are very specific provisions on how an athlete should practice his religion or beliefs during the games.”
Many have pointed out that hampering religious practice violates the Olympic commitment to freedom of expression. It also goes against the explicit religious traditions of the Olympic Games, Louis A. Ruprecht writes for Religion Dispatches. Ruprecht points out that the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, once referred to the event as religio athletae, explicitly positioning the competition as religious. Even today, when the event is being held in an expressly non-religious country, Ruprecht writes that “the Modern Olympics are choreographed to give the athletes, and to a lesser degree, the spectators, a spiritual experience of enormous and lasting power.”