In Spite of Rules, Olympic Athletes Say They Won't Lose Faith

Olympic and Chinese rules may limit the ways athletes such as Sanya Richards can display their faith.
Olympic and Chinese rules may limit the ways athletes such as Sanya Richards can display their faith. (By Andy Wong -- Associated Press)
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By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

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 such as 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.

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