ROME – Dreams of having a Vatican team in the Olympic games became a bit more real on Thursday, as the Holy See officialized its presence on the sports scene by presenting an athletic association bearing the papal colors with the goal of promoting diversity and Christian values.
“The dream that we have very often is to see the little [yellow and white papal] flag waving at the Olympic parades,” said Father Melchor José Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, during a press conference at the Vatican Jan. 10.
Sanchez is the president of Athletica Vaticana, the Vatican’s very own sports association under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Though there is a well-documented history of the Vatican and sports – including a very impressive cricket team – Athletica represents a new milestone towards the creation of an internationally recognized Vatican team.
While the Olympic games represent a “long-term objective,” the priest and marathon running enthusiast said they “aren’t closing any doors” and look to compete against small European or Mediterranean countries in the meantime.
Born from the bond between Vatican citizens and employees, Athletica Vaticana has established itself as a force to be reckoned with by participating in several local marathons in the past year. Today the Vatican team has t-shirts, an official prayer and even a few medals under its belt.
“Until now I ran and did a few marathons on my own, here it’s something to be done together,” said French Dominican Sister Marie Theo in an interview with Crux.
Athletica Vaticana, she said, “was born from a passion, a passion that builds a harmony between spirit, mind and body and between faith and sports.”
The “papal runners,” as they are called, aren’t in it just for trophies, but to promote Christian values of solidarity, charity and inclusion in a field that too often has been wrought by scandal. Bringing the spiritual perspective on Thursday was Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who denounced what he called the “squalid spectacles” too often displayed in sports.
According to the cardinal, examples of doping, financial mismanagement, violence and racism call for “the correction of the corruption in sports.” The Vatican’s culture czar insisted that this is particularly important for young people who look up to sports celebrities and idolize them.
Athletica Vaticana also launched a collaboration with the National Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) and the Italian Special Olympics Committee, putting an emphasis on its goal of furthering inclusion and diversity through sports.
Religious men and women, lay people, men, women, disabled and all cultural backgrounds participate and are welcome in the Vatican team. Saretta, a young girl in a wheelchair who ran in the 2018 Rome Marathon, watched Thursday’s press conference smilingly and took selfies with the Vatican’s athletes and officials.
“Sports can be a religious witness,” said avid runner and Vatican pharmacist Michela Ciprietti at the event, adding that they “can also be a tool to eliminate differences,” citing her marathon alongside Saretta as the highlight of her experience on the team.
According to Luca Pancalli, president of the Special Olympic Committee, the birth of Athletica Vaticana has the potential “to change the culture of our country through sport” not only regarding disability but also different cultures, faiths and ethnicities.
This was the experience of Buba Jallow, a 21-year-old man from Gambia who fled his country and embarked on a perilous journey at sea to reach Italy.
“In my life, since I was young, we always had to run,” he told Crux in an interview, expressing gratitude to his team for welcoming him and giving him a sense of community.
“Being an athlete at Athletica Vaticana is very important for my life,” he said, “It has changed many things. I have passed many difficulties along the journey.”
“This is an opportunity for people like me. Many immigrants come into Italy,” Jallow continued. “If you come to somebody’s country, the most important thing is to show them that you want to be a good person.”
“When people see that you are good, they will stand to help you be that good person in the world,” he said.
Asked whether he would participate in the Olympic Games under the Vatican banner, Jallow said that it’s his hope, especially to make his teammates proud.
While the possibility of the Vatican holding the Olympic torch remains a distant hope, Atletica Vaticana has already left a mark by organizing and participating in charitable initiatives such as lunches and events for the poor, immigrants, disabled and the elderly.
“No one can promote certain values better that the people that represent this place,” said Giovanni Malagò, President of CONI, at the press event, adding that in sports size doesn’t always matter.
“Even the smallest country can take your medal away,” he said.