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Sports chaplains not taken seriously at Olympics

The role of sports chaplains is not being taken seriously by organizers of the Olympic Games that open on Friday in Sydney, Christian leaders in Australia claim. Writes Dave Crampton.

Although a group of about 80 chaplains representing 28 faith groups -- including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism -- has been assembled, their scheduling makes it impossible for athletes needing their services to see the same person on consecutive days, a departure from the Summer Olympics in Atlanta four years ago. At the same time, Christian leaders contend, veteran Australian Institute of Sport chaplains for swimming and athletics were passed over in favor of volunteers.

More than 23,000 athletes and administrators are expected to arrive at the Olympic Village by Friday.

The manager of Olympic Village Religious Services, Father Jim Boland, disputes critics of the chaplaincy program and said the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) has "bent over backwards" to provide a credible service. "They've gone far beyond what they have to do," he said. "The IOC (International Olympic Committee) contract allowed for one room, but they've provided five prayer rooms and two counseling rooms." Chaplains will be available 24 hours a day throughout the two weeks of the Games, Boland said.

Olympics organizers do not understand the nature of sports chaplaincy work, some Christian leaders maintain, an ignorance that is reflected in a schedule in which chaplains have been assigned to six-hour shifts every three days and may not enter the religious services center at any other time.

"SOCOG's organizers failed to realize that sports' chaplaincy is based . on relationships and availability," said Anglican Bishop Brian King of Sydney. "This is especially needed in spontaneous situations, such as grief counseling after an athlete's loss or injury. This failure resulted in chaplains being rostered six hours every third day, which is a very controlled and artificial offering, unlike in previous Games."

King, who also chairs Quest, an interdenominational group coordinating church volunteers at the Olympics, told Newsroom that organizing committee officials appear to regard chaplains as just another group of volunteers. Quest is coordinating 160 church-run, sports clinics that will provide 1,000 volunteers to the Games.

Australian cricket chaplain Mark Tronson, who has been involved with Olympic Religious Services since 1984, said the roster system is impractical. "Athletes invariably look for someone they know, or someone with whom they' ve struck up an initial conversation," he said.

Chaplains already have dealt with major incidents at the Sydney Games, including the death of Nigerian hurdler Hyginus Anayo Anugo, killed in a car accident last Thursday. They counseled his fiance and Nigerian team members, who are the largest group to use the religious service center so far.

"Past experience has shown that these (Olympic) athletes seek advice about their future, and a continuity of chaplaincy has proven very helpful," King said.

Boland said that despite religious differences among the chaplains, the volunteers are working together well. "There are five faiths who are opposed, who are in the center under one roof, side by side and accepting each other's spirituality and encouraging them in their faith -- it's beautiful," he told Newsroom.

While Boland and other Christians disagree about the organization of chaplaincy services in these Olympic Games, they agree that including a float of drag queens in the closing ceremonies is inappropriate. The gay community in Sydney, the largest in Australia, welcomes the controversial float, which is scheduled to appear as part of a tribute to the film "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," which features drag queens.

"I`m not impressed that the drag queens will be there -- the excuse is that it is advertising the film industry," Boland said.

Christian Democrat leader Fred Nile said the float does not represent Australian culture, or values. "The blatant condoning of a public homosexual display will not enhance the Olympic games, nor Australia as host to the games," he added.

"It is very revealing that Christians can be restricted from even wearing a T-shirt with a gospel theme, while something that represents a standard of confused sexuality can get such prominent exhibition," complained Sydney Anglican Archbishop Harry Goodhew.

King said concerns of Christians are being ignored by Olympic organizers in favor of minority views. A proposal to open the ceremonies with a multi-faith prayer was rejected by the SOCOG, for example. "Now we have a situation (the parade) where a minority group (homosexuals) is given preference over the majority of people who believe in God," he said.


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