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Olympians cheer, and care, and give glory to God

10 August 2012


"It's, 'To God be the glory'": the American high-jumper Brigetta Barrett flies over the bar in the qualifying competition on Thursday, gaining a place in the women's final, on Saturday. She took the silver medal. Ms Barrett said in an interview shortly before the Games began: "But remembering that no matter what other people's expectations are, that God's gonna love me no matter what happens, and that love is unconditional, I don't have to worry about this conditional love that some people may give me based upon whether I do jump high or don't jump high. . . that gave me the best source of peace that I could have ever asked for" 

"It's, 'To God be the glory'": the American high-jumper Brigetta Barrett flies over the bar in the qualifying competition on Thursday, gaining a pla...

"I GIVE all the glory to God. It's kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to him, and the blessings fall down on me." Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old American gymnast who took gold in both the individual and team categories at the 2012 Olympic Games, is among the Olympians who have taken to the airwaves and social-media sites to talk about their faith.

"Never give up on your dreams!!!! God is good," Sanya Richards-Ross wrote on Twitter, after triumphing in the 400m women's race last Sunday.

In second place in that race was Christine Ohuruogu, who was brought up less than a mile from the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, and attended St Edward's C of E School, Romford, and Trinity RC High School, Woodford Green.

Jason Kenny, who has won two golds in cycling - both the team sprint and the individual sprint - is the son of a nursery teacher at Canon Sharples School in Wigan.

One former Olympian impressed by the witness of Christians is the Revd Michael Lapage, a retired Anglican priest, who was part of the British rowing team that took the silver medal in the men's eight at the 1948 Olympics.

There were lessons to be learned, and parallels to be drawn, between the Christian life and the Games, he said on Tuesday. "There are New Testament allusions to the Games which Paul must have attended in Corinth, and lots of advice: forgetting those things that are past; 'I reach for the prize'; the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12."

Mr Lapage, who carried the Olympic torch through St Austell in Cornwall on the first day of the relay in May, said that the Games of today were very different from those held in 1948, which were an "austerity Olympics", and run "on a shoe-string".

He took up his place at Cambridge in 1946, after serving as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, and was on the Cambridge team that formed the Olympic team two years later. Mr Lapage later became a missionary in Kenya.

More than 2000 volunteers representing over 40 countries have come to Britain to help churches during the 2012 Games, the charity More than Gold reported last Sunday. The volunteers are helping churches to run children's clubs, big-screen community festivals, and sports clinics, while talking about Christianity "with all who might be interested". But proselytising was not on the agenda.

Despite holding their beliefs passionately, "we're determined not to force-feed [them to] people," said Jon Burns, the UK Director of the charity. He had seen litter-bins full of religious literature that had been given to people who did not want it, he said. "We want our international volunteers to serve people, and to engage with them - just as Jesus did."

Sherri Oldevak, a volunteer from South Carolina, in the United States, said that sport could be used to draw people into conversation. "We pull people from the audience to interact with us as we spin six basketballs on our fingers and toes at the same time. People are intrigued by what you're doing, and ask questions. This is our link to share the gospel."

Christian households have also enabled the families of foreign athletes to experience "the heart of British home-life" by providing accommodation during the Games, under the Homestay initiative organised by More than Gold.

"Jesus Christ was someone who served people, who met their needs, joined in their celebrations," Canon Hugh Dibbins, a retired priest, told Radio 4's Sunday programme this week. "Stories of what happened in the 2012 Olympics are passed on from generation to generation, and contacts continue, even though the Games finish."

One story likely to make its way across the ocean is the tale of the Madagascan Olympic athletes and their families who landed at Luton with no luggage. On opening the door to guests with only the clothes they stood up in, Sister Anne Spilberg, part of the Homestay scheme, went to Brentwood Roman Catholic Church to ask for help. The immediate donations included 20 bags of clothes.

Churches have also been opening their doors to international visitors. St John's, Stratford, is working with churches in the area to host a series of Olympics-related events. "Jesus told us to go into the world; now the world is coming to us," the Vicar of St John's, the Revd David Richards, said.

Out on the streets, almost 300 Games Pastors have been deployed to provide practical, emotional, and spiritual support to the public, at all the main transport hubs in London; in Newcastle and Coventry, where football has been played; and at Heathrow and Luton airports.

The operations manager for Games Pastors at More than Gold, Mike Freeman, said that each day pastors had engaged with people in need of a listening ear. He believes that the programme will have a legacy: "People are thinking outside the walls of the church."

This is also the hope of Canon Duncan Green, who is head of multifaith chaplaincy services for the Games, with a team of almost 200 volunteer chaplains ( Features, 27 July). He is pleased with the way things have gone so far.

"You only have to look around the country and see how many millions are interested in sport," he said on Monday. "We need to be on board, encouraging people to be lay chaplains."

He is confident that the legacy of the Games is already here. "If you look at the way east London has been regenerated, it would have taken 35 or 40 years under normal circumstances, but it's been done in under seven. There is also a legacy in the way faith communities have worked together on this project."

It is a verdict echoed by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu. "The regeneration of poorer areas such as the East End of London will make a difference for future generations," he told The Independent. "There is a real sense of hope, and we need to nurture the dreams and aspirations of young people."

While the women's marathon was taking place last Sunday, an endurance test of a very different kind was taking place in the bell-tower of St Paul's, when, for the first time, an all-women band rang the Cathedral's 12 bells to a peal. The ringers ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, and completed the peal in three hours and 57 minutes, applauded at the finish by cheering from the churchyard. The heaviest bell, weighing three tons (more than 61cwt), was pulled by two women.

The conductor of the band, Susan Apter, said: "Everyone rang fantastically. We didn't just do it, we did it in style, and that was great." It was also a "poignant" experience, as Alison Regan, tower captain and master at All Saints', Worcester, who was to have rung the 11th bell, died suddenly on 12 July, after a short illness. "We were all thinking of her, and it spurred us on," Mrs Apter said.

During Games that have seen Yorkshire scoop ten medals, half of them gold (placing it tenth, at the time of writing, in the league table), pupils at one school in the county had the Olympics come to them. On Monday, a three-day eventer, Nicola Wilson, who helped her team win a silver medal last Monday, visited her primary school, Ainderby Steeple C of E school.

When the closing ceremony concludes the Games on Sunday, attention will switch to the Paralympic Games, which open on 29 August. In Team GB is Britain's only female amputee sprinter, Stefanie Reed, who lost her foot when she was just 16. Echoing Eric Liddell, she told Radio 2's Leap of Faith programme on Tuesday: "I feel God's pleasure when I am running on the track at top speed. You hit this moment when everything in your body is just moving in sync, and it's so joyful." 

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