The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo look a little different than previous Olympic Games. Originally scheduled for last summer, the iconic international competition was one of many events postponed due to pandemic concerns.
As the games launched last month, they did so in empty or only partially-filled stadiums, with athletes undergoing strict testing requirements and sporting masks in between competitions.
Another change - the archbishop of Tokyo announced in July that people would not be allowed to visit Catholic churches during the Olympics. An international Mass at the Tokyo cathedral and a pastoral program for the athletes competing in the games were also canceled. The announcement followed a new state of emergency declaration by the Japanese government due to rising COVID numbers.
“[T]he Tokyo Archdiocese had originally been considering preparations so that each parish may be able to address the spiritual needs of the many people who would come to Japan for this international event,” said Tokyo Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi. “However, we have decided to cancel all plans and thus, will not take any special involvement in the Olympics and Paralympics.”
For many people, religious services may not be the first thing that comes to mind in connection with the Olympics. But several star athletes - including swimmer Katie Ledecky, gymnast Simone Biles, and runner Galen Rupp - have spoken openly about relying on their Catholic faith as they train and compete.
Typically, the Olympic Games’s facilities include some type of multi-faith center, with gathering areas for prayers, and services offered by chaplains of various religions.
The role of these chaplains may be a quiet one, away from the spotlight that surrounds the competitors. But Olympic chaplains can make an impact as they support the athletes and teams competing at the highest level, said Fr. Frank Mulgrew, a priest at St. James and All Souls Parish in the Diocese of Salford in the UK.
Mulgrew was a chaplain at the 2012 Olympics in London. He told The Pillar that sports chaplaincy is about being present - not only to offer sacraments and formal blessings, but also for casual conversations, encouragement, and support.
“Chaplaincy can be the ministry of hanging around - being open to opportunities God may present to you,” he said. “So I found myself around the Olympic Village in conversations, sharing laughs/jokes, giving encouragement, blessings, with athletes and coaches.”
Mulgrew - who at the time of the Olympics had recently been ordained a deacon - would wear his clerical collar under his volunteer uniform as he walked through the Olympic Village. He said he was reminded of St. John Paul II’s quote, “Don’t take God off the streets.”
At the London Games, he said, there were six Catholic chaplains, divided into teams of three with chaplains from other faith backgrounds, so that there were always chaplains available for those who needed them.
The Catholic chaplains offered Mass daily, confessions on request, prayers and blessings. They ministered to people from any country - athletes, coaches, volunteers, and anyone else who came to them.
Mulgrew said the Masses drew only small numbers of participants, possibly because some countries had brought along their own chaplains to minister specifically to their teams, and also because local Catholic churches were available nearby.
But people would also stop by just to pray.
“We had a significant number of athletes visit the chaplaincy just wanting to say a prayer before their event and asking for a prayer or blessing,” he said. “I would hand out miraculous medals to them, explaining about Our Lady’s love and blessings for them, and say, ‘Here’s your first medal of the games!’”
Personal connections and relationships are at the heart of chaplaincy, Mulgrew said. Although he went to the Olympics with limited experience in sports ministry, he said he learned this lesson in a beautiful way on the last day of the games.
“There was a UK Protestant chaplain who was also a coach in team Great Britain track and field,” he said. “On the last day, she said she was going to go for a walk around the village and invited me. What an experience - she kept being stopped by other team Great Britain athletes and introducing me, we got into some very blessed conversations, and in fact two Great Britain athletes attended the evening Mass on the back of it.”
“I realized you can really make an impact in chaplaincy ministry when it’s relational. Because my friend...had a built up trust and a natural way to evangelize,” he said.
Mulgrew also had the opportunity for moments of personal connection. He recalled meeting a U.S. pole vault coach on the train as he traveled from the Olympic Village back to his accommodations one night.
He started chatting with the man, and the conversation that ensued touched on sports, faith, and God’s love. Mulgrew asked the coach how someone learns how to do the pole vault, and the coach - a lapsed Catholic - reflected on his mother’s fervent prayers for him, and how he seemed to keep running into clergy and nuns during his time in London.
With COVID restrictions limiting opportunities for these types of connections at the 2021 Olympics, Mulgrew said he thinks it can be difficult on the athletes and other community members not to have access to chaplains.
At the same time, the priest said, he recognizes the difficult decisions bishops must make to balance ministering to people’s spiritual needs with public health and safety.
Mulgrew said he hopes the Olympic participants are able to be connected via phone or Zoom to a priest who can provide them with support.
“I also think that God has been blessing people and pouring out His grace in an amazing way these days despite the limitations and obstacles people face,” he said, pointing to the prayer retreats and catechetical lessons that have been held via Zoom at his own parish during the COVID lockdowns.
Chaplain support may be particularly helpful for an Olympian who is dealing with a disappointing performance or an injury. Although the Olympics feature athletes at the top of their respective fields, injuries do occur. Last week, American BMX racer Connor Fields was hospitalized following a crash that left him with a brain hemorrhage, broken rib, and bruised lung.
Mulgrew said that if he encountered an athlete going through a particularly devastating situation, he “would just try to be there for them, empathize with them, walk with them, journey with them, pray with them. Just be a presence - maybe it would be too soon for words.”
“And maybe in time to come, if I was still in touch with them, I would share that God uses every opportunity to encounter more of His love. That in the pain, in the struggle, we meet Christ on the cross. But there’s only a cross because there was a resurrection. Where there’s pain, a cross, God brings new life from it - from any suffering we surrender and endure from Him, He can transform and bring about innumerable blessings and miracles.”
The priest also believes that high-level athletes have an opportunity to witness to others through their own disappointments and challenges. He pointed to gymnast Simone Biles, who pulled out of several events last week after becoming disoriented in the air while competing.
Biles cited a need to focus on her own mental health and declined to participate in several events over the next few days, before returning for one final event, and walking away with a bronze medal.
Mulgrew said he was inspired by Biles’ “bravery in sharing her vulnerability and being so honest, as maybe she is helping people more significantly through that than [what] any gold medal would have done.”
The priest recalled one time when he was at a local university, and a student approached him. The student said she had attended an event two years earlier where Mulgrew had shared his own testimony of dealing with mental health issues, and his journey to find grace, peace and healing. The student said she had been struggling with depression at the time and was inspired by Mulgrew’s words about prayer and the importance of seeking help, and that she was in a much better place as a result of hearing his testimony.
“I think Simone Biles is going to help many people through her witness at this year’s Olympics,” Mulgrew said. “Help with a lasting peace, the type God is in the business of doing.”
*Correction: This article originally listed Sydney McLaughlin as a Catholic Olympian. McLaughlin attended a Catholic high school and is vocal about her faith, but is an evangelical Christian, not a Catholic.