The Gospel According to the Olympics

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Olympics Rings London 2012
(London 2012)

How athletes and evangelists are combining to make London’s Summer Olympics about more than just sports


Madeline Mims has served as an Olympic chaplain for 24 years. When she travels to London for the 2012 Games, it will be her seventh time to fill that role. But strangely, as experienced as the former gold medalist is, she has no idea what to expect.

“Each Olympiad has its own unique personality,” Mims says.

One thing is for certain. The Summer Olympics in London, being held July 27 through Aug. 12,  will provide much more freedom for ministry and a wider variety of evangelism opportunities than its Beijing counterpart from four years ago.

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“With England being an Anglican nation, that door has been opened to make sure the religious services are filled,” Mims says. “They’re making sure they cover all the bases.”

Mims is one of four American chaplains—two men and two women—who will minister to the entire U.S. contingency. They will join 15 international Protestant chaplains to facilitate daily chapel services, one-on-one counseling and team-specific ministry. She created the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy (USCSC) to help support American sports chaplains as they travel to the Olympics, Track & Field World Championships, U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials and other events.

At the Olympics, Mims often gives motivational talks for various teams throughout the two-week competitions. She sings and shares from her personal experiences as an elite track and field athlete who made Olympic history in Mexico City in 1968 when she became the first American woman to capture gold in the 800 Meters event.

Always, she tries to bridge the gap between herself and those who don’t always feel comfortable attending a formal gathering.

“A lot of times, the Christian girls [athletes] will encourage the other athletes to come hear the former Olympian talk,” Mims explains. “They’ll come to something like that. You may not be able to get them together to do a chapel service or anything formal like that. But you can make yourself available.”

Being available means Mims has met with the U.S. women’s volleyball team in a Beijing hotel and with the women’s gymnastics team at a bus stop in Atlanta.

“You have to take opportunities as they come,” she says. “In those situations, ministry takes place without the formula.”

In the past, Mims has spent much of her time working with the track and field team, but this year that duty will be passed to another former Olympic gold medalist, Chandra Cheeseborough, head coach at Tennessee State University. Mims will utilize her connections as the chaplain to the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock and work closely with the U.S. women’s basketball team.

High-jumper Jesse Williams is among the many athletes who understand the importance of consistent chaplaincy. He experienced the calming effect of chapel services at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he won the gold medal.

“It put my mind at ease before competing,” Williams recalls. “It’s easy to get lost in the world that we live in and put something like sports before God. But when you go to chapel, you’re humbling yourself and understanding that God needs to go first in everything you do.”

And though Mims appreciates the support and advocacy of the Christian athletes, she notes that their primary job is pastoral care for the entire team—not just the committed believers.

“If an athlete is a solid Christian, they don’t need you as much as the others who are struggling or trying to figure out what religion they want to embrace,” she says. “It’s an awesome opportunity to watch the Holy Spirit work in those situations.”

Beyond the Olympic Village

Outside the Olympic Village, on the London streets, numerous Christian organizations will be using the international event as the foundation for ministry to the hundreds of thousands of people who will converge on the city.

Spearheaded by its United Kingdom branch, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) represents one of the largest contingents. Its “Forever 2012” initiative is a two-year outreach that already has dispatched more than 2,000 people into various event locations. It will involve an estimated 2,000 additional missions workers during the Olympics.

YWAM, which has been actively involved in Olympic ministry dating as far back as the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, created six focus areas to effectively maximize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They include arts (drama, music, magic, puppetry and more), general mission and service (translating, greeting, security and waste management), prayer, social justice (outreaches to the homeless and others), sports (clinics, tournaments and more), and youth and children (school assemblies, face painting and so on).

“The focus areas were developed to give definition to the outreaches, and to help us target teams to outreach destinations,” YWAM spokesperson Jeremy Weightman says. “They also help hosting churches define what they want in terms of outreach teams.”

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