ROME – One doesn’t have to go any further than St. Paul’s letter encouraging Corinthians to “run in such a way as to take the prize” to find the deep connection between sports and faith.
On Friday, Vatican officials announced a further step in the Church’s relationship with the Olympic games, and the possibility that it might evolve into something permanent.
While no team flaunting the papal colors will have a chance to win a gold medal in the foreseeable future, Church representatives have been formally invited by the International Olympics Committee, or IOC, to take part in the Olympic session Feb. 5-7 ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Games, in South Korea, in an observer role.
The Vatican already had been invited to the opening ceremony of the games in Rio de Janeiro back in 2016, an invitation that has been reiterated for the 2018 games. This year’s novelty is in the Holy See’s opportunity to attend the session, which is a general assembly discussing the issues regarding sports around the world and Olympic policies.
“It’s one more step down the road toward relations between the Holy See and the Olympic world,” said Spanish Father Melchor Sanchez De Toca Y Alameda of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who will be leading the Vatican delegation, in a phone interview with Crux.
“Perhaps in the future we might reach a stable or permanent relationship that still has to be formally defined,” he added.
Sanchez is a sport enthusiast, having competed in pentathlons in his youth. Despite his athletic zeal, he explained that it would be extremely difficult for the Vatican to have its own team compete in the games, since the Vatican is a state sui generis and does not have the sports federations and clubs necessary to create a national Olympic committee.
“I am not even sure that this is the significance for the presence of the Holy See,” Sanchez said between one breath and the other as he took his evening jog, “I believe that we should aim toward another solution, for example, the Holy See’s participation at the United Nations or other international organizations.”
He added that as an observer, the Vatican will have an opportunity to experience the Olympic games from the inside, but without slipping into the dynamics of qualifications and competitions.
“This way the Church can bring its voice, its moral authority, not politics,” Sanchez said.
The papal delegation will be coming into the Olympic session at a delicate time globally. The North Korean team and the one from South Korea will be uniting under a single flag this year, despite the two countries’ ongoing division.
While some detractors view this as nothing more than a short pause in a conflict that is only going to get worse, especially given the fiery rhetoric emanating from North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, others look hopefully to the games as a step toward peace.
According to Sanchez, sports diplomacy was able to perform a “small miracle” by getting the foes to agree to compete on the same team, adding that in this case one must look more at the facts on the ground rather than political declarations.
“This is a small sign, but it’s very eloquent,” he said. “Our Olympic trip is a small demonstration of what a world in peace might be like.”
This is a chance for the Church to be present as “salt and light,” the priest said quoting the Gospel. While the light represents hope, the salt “preserves from corruption and gives taste to life,” he added.
Corruption is nothing new when it comes to the Olympics, with fraud and graft taking place at the games since they originated in Ancient Greece. The Church’s hope is to benefit the games by helping it to “maintain the pureness of the sport,” Sanchez said.
Recently the Court of Arbitration for Sports overturned a suspension for doping of 28 Russian athletes, causing an outcry by many who view it as a failure on the part of the IOC to keep the games clean and fair.
“If the game is all corrupt who will want to see it? Everyone loses,” the Spanish priest commented, adding that the invitation to the Vatican by the IOC shows that it “cares that there be a spiritual presence, that is outside the power plays and small or big interests at a political or national level.”
Sanchez added that while the Vatican will be attending the session simply as an observer, this doesn’t mean that it will not also benefit from its closeness to the world of sports.
“Since the beginning, there has been a convergence between the sporting world, the Church and the great educator saints who understood the potential that sports have in the integral development of the person,” he said.
Sanchez is a perfect example for how sports and faith collide in positive and complementary ways. He is among the engines driving the Athletica Vaticana – or, as its members call it, “The Pope’s Runners.”
It’s a team of about 70 Vatican employees, including Swiss guards, technicians, journalists, typographers, firemen and pharmacists who train and race together wearing the Vatican’s canary yellow and pearl white colors.
In sign of friendship, Sanchez will be giving the Korean athletes and the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, one of the Vatican team’s shirts.
Its debut took place last September under the patrimony of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s sports section, when they ran down the Via Pacis in Rome alongside the city’s Muslim and Jewish official teams.
For Gianpaolo Mattei, a journalist for the Vatican’s daily L’Osservatore Romano and a runner on the Vatican team, “the fact that the Olympic committee invited representatives from the Holy See, and in this case from Athletica Vaticana, for an Olympic session means bringing in a conversation on solidarity and attention toward the real values of sports.”
Mattei’s specialty is the 100 km race. He runs to work in the morning and goes back home running, for a total of 35 km a day for about three hours a day. But what really makes him tick is finding a way to marry his enthusiasm for running to his passion toward making a difference.
“In every occasion we try to find a concrete action, not just words, of solidarity,” he said.
The German Protestant team of Lutherstad Wittenberg began a partnership with the Vatican runners not long after the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. One of Athletica Vaticana’s top runners is Father Andrea Palmieri, the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, who will likely compete in the race scheduled for March.
“We will have an ecumenical runner in house who will help us out!” Mattei joked.
The ‘Pope’s Runners’ though, have taken part in other races aimed at fostering unity and solidarity. In January Mattei raced while pushing the nine-year-old Sara on her wheelchair, a girl suffering from a degenerative disease that has deprived her of the use of her legs.
“Running with her is worth more than any personal record,” he said. “Running through all those people who encourage you, who caress that young girl, is something that has no price and no Olympic medal can give.”
For Mattei, sports, and especially running, offer an opportunity to give a “Christian witness of the beauty of life and running.” That day he ran 10 kilometers to the marathon and then raced back home after for another 30 kilometers. To his friends who asked how on earth he had the physical strength to do that, he said that he ran as if he were doped.
“The story of that young girl touched me so much that I ran home at an incredible speed!” he said. “That was the doping of joy for the smile of that young girl.”
“That is real doping!” he added.