Olympic Athletes Can’t Cross Line in Displays of Faith

August 9, 2008

Author: Alan Goldenbach

Source: The Washington Post


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 like 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.