Every four years, the Olympic Games bring the international community together in one arena, at one time, with one purpose: to play.
Beyond that obvious objective of the games, however, there lies a takeaway that perhaps not every spectator or participant signs up for.
The Games are a time when potentially every person in the world thinks of every other person in the world.
The Games open up a time when we are all reminded that we are not the only kind of people here, but that the world is a space where all different shapes, sizes, colors, and sounds exist to comprise other human beings, and that that is how things should be. The Olympics brings together people of different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, of varying religions, and it teaches us to respect them.
This year at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Sochi, Russia, event coordinators have set up three multi-faith centers at the Olympic and Paralympic villages for players and their respective coaches.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus among this year’s 6,000 Olympic athletes and 1,650 Paralympians have the opportunity to visit these prayer centers and take part in their spirituality as is Olympic custom. “We just give them a quiet place to be with themselves,” said one volunteering chaplain at the games.
Each multi-faith center is staffed with multiple chaplains to represent its respective religion. They hold Sunday services and Mass for practicing Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christian competitors, and in other 24-hour rooms, athletes of faiths outside of those aforementioned may enter by their own leave to meditate, worship, and be counseled upon request.
“We’re here to advise and encourage people. Personally, I meet with Christian athletes that are interested. We have Bible studies, we have prayer time, or we just give them a quiet place to be with themselves,” said Carl Dambman, a Baptist who for 20 years did missionary work in Moscow, making himself available to athletes in Russia. This year’s games marks the fifth time he has volunteered as a faith center chaplain, and the sixteenth he has ever attended, either as a competitor, volunteer, or member of the cheering audience.
Most of the chaplains volunteering in the Olympic villages hail from regions in or near Sochi and were selected by the organizing committee there in Sochi. One of the chaplains is a California-raised Orthodox rabbi, the leader of the Chabad Jewish Center of Sochi. Another is an imam from Kazan, which is in the densely Muslim-populated area of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan. As the most prominent Russian religion is Orthodox Catholicism, many of the chaplains are also Orthodox priests.
Contrary to what many might think, the introduction of multi-faith centers is not the first time religion has crossed paths with the Olympics. The very foundation, the humble (or perhaps not so humble) beginnings of the games, took place in Greece as grandiose tributes to the god of thunder, Zeus. The games were intended to exemplify the far-reaching extent of human strength as qualities that mirror those of Zeus himself. This was, in a sense, their act of worship.
The city of Sochi itself is comprised less of multiple different religions and more of just one: Christianity is the professed faith of nearly all of the 343,000 residents of the city. That said, Sufian Zhemukhov, a visiting scholar from George Washington University whose studies focus on Russian nationalism and religion, said, “Religion is still growing in Sochi; not all is officially established yet and it will take some time. But the games may give people who have access a broader taste of the various faiths.”
Indeed, the underlying takeaway of the Olympic Games is not the games themselves, but a greater understanding of the people who play them.