Sanya Richards envisions 91,000 fans at Beijing National Stadium and millions more on television watching her cross the finish line first in the 400 meters later this month. Immediately afterward, Richards said, she plans to kneel, say a quick prayer and then point skyward in spiritual appreciation.
"It's important because I want people to know that I'm not the best because I'm Sanya Richards," the American 400 champion said at last month's U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. "I'm the best because of God. I truly believe we can't will ourselves to win. I hope people see the same thing I see."
Richards is among the athletes who openly display their faith on the playing field, and feel the two are inextricably linked. Whether through a prayer or symbolic gesture, they use competition as a pulpit, sharing their belief with thousands of spectators.
But this month, Richards will have another set of eyes watching her that might take note of her celebration. The Chinese government frowns upon organized public displays of faith outside state-sanctioned religious events and does not allow proselytizing. While a private religious gesture likely will not be a problem, it will be difficult for athletes like Richards to know when they have crossed the line.
"So long as you practice your religious belief in conformity with the constitution and the laws, there will be no problem," said Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "The practice of religion should be within the laws. The Chinese government is against conducting other activities in the name of religion."
The Olympic charter specifically prohibits demonstrations of "political, religious or racial propaganda" at "any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." In May, the International Olympic Committee issued a clarification in advance of the Olympics in Beijing, where the Chinese government is on guard against public displays by athletes not only of religious faith but also against China's human rights practices or policies in places such as Tibet or Darfur.
"The conduct of participants at all sites, areas and venues includes all actions, reactions, attitudes or manifestations of any kind by a person or group of persons, including but not limited to their look, external appearance, clothing, gestures, and written or oral statements," the IOC said. "As in all Olympic Games, such conduct must also, of course, comply with the laws of the host state."
Wang said athletes should strictly adhere to the provision in the charter and the IOC clarification, or face discipline from the IOC and the Chinese government. He would not describe what kind of punishment violators might face.
"There are very specific provisions on how an athlete should practice his religion or beliefs during the games," Wang said. "As an athlete, he or she should follow that charter. That's their guideline."
The U.S. Olympic Committee does not instruct its athletes one way or the other about displaying their faith at the Games. Each athlete must attend the U.S. Olympic Ambassadors Program, which, USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said, "is designed to provide a more complete understanding of the role as an ambassador of the country as an Olympic athlete." The program essentially reinforces good manners, sportsmanship and behavior in a foreign country.
"There is no discussion of religion," Seibel said. "Frankly, it's none of our business. We, as an Olympic committee, never do anything to impede an athlete's freedom from expressing faith."
Several U.S. athletes, when interviewed at last month's Olympic track and field trials, said they do not plan to alter routines that include a prayer or spiritual gesture either before or after a race or event.
Bryan Clay, the U.S. champion in the decathlon and the silver medalist at the 2004 Games in Athens, said it is almost habitual for him to pray before each of the 10 events. He'll squat down in the block or behind the starting line, say a prayer and then compete.
"It feels like it's something I have to do," Clay said, "and if I don't, I feel something's missing and not because I think God won't bless me, but it's part of getting ready."
U.S. heptathlete Hyleas Fountain doesn't throw her arms skyward and say a quick prayer until after each of her seven events. She said it does not signify triumph &
the heptathlon winner isn't determined until the last event is completed &
but rather gratitude.
"That's my celebration," said Fountain, who won the event at the U.S. trials with a personal-best score. "That's my way of thanking God for giving me this opportunity."
Forty years ago at the Summer Games in Mexico City, Madeline Manning Mims became the first &
and still the only &
U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in the 800. In an interview afterward on ABC, she said she ran for "the glory of God, the glory of Jesus."
Manning Mims, who also competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and qualified for the 1980 team that missed the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the U.S. boycott, later was ordained as a Protestant minister.
At the past six Summer Games, she has served as part of an international community of voluntary chaplains. She said her group is meant to serve athletes from countries that do not have an official religion &
like the United States &
and do not send chaplains with their respective delegations. She said she never has had difficulty gaining access to the Olympic Village.
Earlier this year, however, the Beijing Olympic Committee announced that foreign chaplains will not be allowed in the Olympic Village; all chaplains at the Games will be state employees. Wang said it should be a nonissue for athletes. "The Chinese chaplains are competent enough for (the athletes) to do their job well during the Games," he said.
Manning Mims, 60, said she will be in Beijing on her own, but acknowledged she has to find creative ways to reach the athletes who request her support.
"We know our people," she said. "I don't think the Chinese chaplains have been trained enough to know what this is all about."
In keeping with past Olympic hosts, Beijing Olympic officials have established a multidenominational church in the athletes' village. The Multi-Faith Center has prayer/meditation rooms and has Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish services.
Some countries have attempted to avoid any conflict with the Chinese government by asking athletes to refrain from making any religious or political statements during the Games. In January, the Belgian Olympic Committee issued a statement that read, in part, "Not a single participant in the games will be allowed to give a political opinion at the Olympic venues."
Nick Willis, who came to the United States in 2002 to run at the University of Michigan, will run the 800 and 1,500 for his native New Zealand. Willis said he embraced Christianity after moving to the United States and is open about displaying it on the track. "It's very clear that God asks us to share this," he said. "My faith would be false if I didn't share it at every situation."
But earlier this year, after he was named to the Olympic team, Willis said he was asked by the New Zealand Olympic Committee to sign a pledge, which he said ordered him "to refrain from any political, religious or other forms of discussion at events or in the Olympic Village or risk harm from the New Zealand Olympic Committee."
"I was a little bit flustered about how I should approach" the pledge, Willis said, "but it's something you should come to expect," given the controversy surrounding China's social policies.
After giving it much thought, Willis said he decided to sign the pledge. And though he said he plans to show his faith on the track, he will be careful about what he says in interviews with reporters, especially those from China.
"Each person has a different calling," Willis said, "and God has called me to train and participate in the Olympic Games. Someone else might be called to protest and boycott this. I feel winning a gold medal would give me a greater stage afterward, like on TV or in schools," to give his testimony.
"I see it as a very small thing. I may not be able to hold up a sign or tear off my shirt with a tattoo of John 3:16, but it doesn't mean I can't have a smiling face and still give glory to God."
In spite of rules, athletes won't lose faith