At the Tokyo Olympics, even religious events are different as COVID spikes. Here’s how.


(RNS) – He was nicknamed the first “No Fun” Olympics.

Athletes were asked to eat alone and keep their distance in the Tokyo Olympic Village dining hall, and compete in empty stadiums.

Even the chaplains who deal with the spiritual health of athletes have largely gone virtual.

Amid changes to the Tokyo Olympics – which began Friday, July 23 after a year-long delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still devastating many participating countries – are adjustments to how the Games respond the religious needs of athletes, as well as how outside groups can share their faith with Olympians and their fans.

The changes come as Japan declares a fourth state of emergency in the Tokyo region as COVID-19 infections continue to rise there.

Will Thompson, Japanese director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, explained why these accommodations are important to athletes, who he says are “created as physical, mental and spiritual beings.”

“In the event of failure, injury, disappointment or dissatisfaction, there is rarely the proper support for these athletes to truly identify with them in a way that fully helps them,” said Thompson, “no a fan or asking them anything as they do. often experience. Meeting them as they are, where they are, as human beings in need of encouragement and spiritual direction, is very important and can have a huge impact on their lives on and off the playing field.

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At the last Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the Olympic Village featured a multi-faith center with chaplains and prayer spaces representing Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.

The Tokyo Olympic Village will also include a multi-faith center, the Tokyo 2020 international communications team confirmed.

“The villages will include a multi-faith center to provide athletes with appropriate facilities for religious services and prayers,” he said in a statement provided to Religion News Service. “Tokyo 2020 is liaising with local faith and faith groups to plan and fund the multi-faith center. “

Fellowship of Christian Athletes Olympics pins include, from left to right, Faith, Hope (希望) and Love (愛). Photo courtesy of FCA

But the accommodation provided by the center will be different from those in previous Olympic years in order to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

Religious services for residents of the Olympic Village will be provided virtually, the International Olympic Committee’s media relations team confirmed in an email.

The chaplaincy too, said Thompson of the FCA. The organization has previously supported and shared the stories of Christian athletes and coaches participating in the Olympics.

“While there are still a small handful of accredited chaplains, they can only enter the Olympic Village in an emergency due to COVID restrictions. All chaplaincy this year is virtual – via one-on-one Zoom appointments, Zoom worship services, and pre-recorded devotional messages in multiple languages ​​and traditions made available to athletes, ”said Thompson.

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee is also preparing a list of religious or denominational centers that residents of the Olympic Village can contact or visit and set up multi-faith prayer spaces at Games venues, according to its communications team.

Last year, a Japanese organization called the Yasu Project announced plans to park its “Mobile Mosque,” ​​a truck modified to provide space for Muslims’ five daily prayers, outside of Olympic venues during the Games, according to Reuters. It was not immediately clear whether the pandemic had altered those plans.

More recently, the Catholic Archdiocese of Tokyo announced last week that amid the state of emergency, it was banning visitors to its churches and rolling back plans to meet the spiritual needs of athletes, support staff and of fans traveling to the area for the Olympics. It appears that live broadcasts of Sunday masses and other devotional videos are available to Catholic athletes in multiple languages.

Awareness during the Tokyo Olympics will also be different for Christian ministries accustomed to evangelizing among spectators and Olympic athletes.

These groups have developed resources and activities to share with people on the streets of Tokyo and other places in Japan, as the limitations of the pandemic have prevented them from accessing Olympic venues.

Pierce Hite, center, a missionary from the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board in Tokyo, Japan, explains an evangelical leaflet to a woman, July 20, 2021. Hite and missionary Julie Bradford, left, attended an event of awareness called 5-Minute English that offers people the opportunity to practice conversational English on the street.  Photo courtesy of IMB

Pierce Hite, center, a missionary from the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board in Tokyo, explains an evangelical leaflet to a woman, July 20, 2021. Hite and missionary Julie Bradford, left, participated in an outreach event called 5 -Minute English which offers people the possibility of practicing conversational English on the street. Photo courtesy of IMB

The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as the FCA, pointed out ahead of the Games that, as an IMB video states, “the Japanese are the second group of people unreached.” About 48% of Japanese are Shintoists, 46% are Buddhists and 1% are Christians, the US State Department reported.

Scott Bradford, a Southern Baptist missionary in Japan, said the IMB’s approach has become “strategy-driven, not event-driven” in light of the inability to enter Olympic venues.

The group is handing out an Olympics-themed booklet that tells the story of early 20th-century Olympic athletics star Eric Liddell, a Christian who refused to compete on Sundays. The son of Scottish missionaries who worked in China, Liddell was featured as a character in the 1981 Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire”.

The booklet contains QR codes that direct readers to information on how to become a Christian and invitations to follow-up events missionaries plan to host after the Games are over.

Bradford and other missionaries are offering free “5 minute English” sessions in high pedestrian areas in the hope of briefly helping Japanese people entering and exiting stations to practice conversational skills with English speakers. .

They also distribute Olympic pins and Christian manga. Manga, a popular art form of comics that originated in Japan, was highlighted at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

The “Japanese Sports Bible” produced by Biblica and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Photo courtesy of FCA

The “Japanese Sports Bible” produced by Biblica and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Photo courtesy of FCA

Thompson, director of the FCA in Japan, said that “the pin trade is a big problem in Olympic culture,” but his organization has limited the production of its set of three Olympic pins that display the words faith, hope and love of a New Testament verse. First letter to the Corinthians.

“We hope that the pins that were made will still be used for gospel conversations during and after the Olympic and Paralympic period,” he said.

His organization has also partnered with Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) to produce a “Japanese Sports Bible” in 20,000 copies.

“The pandemic has changed our distribution methods and plans, as we generally work with athletes from overseas to organize sports clinics, camps and different events as a catalyst for distribution,” said Thompson. “We are working with various churches, mission organizations and individuals to distribute this resource to Japanese coaches and athletes.”

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