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Olympic athletes sought spiritual guidance, thanked God for their achievements

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 2012 9:50 a.m. MDT

Madeline Manning of Oral Roberts track club is caught in mid-stride as she crosses finish line to win women's 800 met race during Athletics Conference Championships on Sunday, June 16, 1980 in Walnut, Calif. The 32-year-old Manning, an Olympic gold medalist in 1968, was timed in 1:58.75. She was a chaplain during the 2012 London Games.

Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. armed services have had chaplains since the Revolutionary War. Law enforcement, hospitals, prisons and other institutions employ them to offer spiritual guidance in situations of desperation or pending death.

And since the 1988 Olympics, athletes have also been able to seek counsel and comfort from chaplains.

"The thing a lot of people don't understand is that in competition, there is a lot of fear and pain. It's a part of who an athlete is. And to get through that, to break through that, so that you can produce at your highest level, many of them pray for God's help," Madeline Manning Mims, a former Olympic gold medalist and a chaplain during the 2012 London Games, told CNN.

It was common over the past fortnight for athletes to thank God during media interviews following their victories. And with social media, the public is learning that many athletes were praising the Lord before, during and after victory — and defeat.

CNN's religion blog features a photo gallery of selected athletes who are used Twitter to express their faith.

Swimmer Ryan Lochte tweeted about his roller coaster performance: "The greatest athletes suffer the hardest defeats before the biggest and best moments of your life ... God has a plan for everyone."

Some are uncomfortable with the idea of God involved in an Olympic competition. Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon that athletes like gymnast Gabby Williams unnerve her because they reflect what Williams called 'The God of Parking Spaces.' It’s the deity that grants wishes to those who ask nicely."

But writer Timothy Dalrymple responded on Patheos that Christian athletes aren't thanking God just for the win, but for the opportunity to win.

"It’s not merely that God gives Gabby Douglas the victory; it’s that God gives Gabby Douglas life, the breath in her lungs, the lungs to breathe it with, the talent in her body and soul, the strength in her spirit, the family that supports and inspires her, the opportunity to compete on the highest level, and then (when God gives it) the victory. When God gives you the parking spot, it’s for his purposes, and not because you prayed in just the right way. And when God does not give you the parking spot, that too is for his purposes."

At Christianity Today, blogger Katelyn Beaty wrestled with the question: "Where was God when Lolo Jones placed fourth?" — referring to the woman hurdler who failed to medal for her second straight Olympics.

"For Jones’s part, she says she has never 'prayed to win a gold medal at Olympics and never will. The Lord is my Shepard (sic) and I shall not want. May His will be done.' I think we all could learn something from Jones — to trust God in the depths of Olympic despair as much as in the heights of Olympic glory. Call it a theology of the missed three-pointer. As more and more athletes speak openly about their Christian faith — and as all Christians continue to experience devastation, loss and heartbreak in this life — we need to develop one now more than ever."

Back to chaplain Mims. She told CNN that many athletes need consoling when they fail to achieve what they set out to do on one of the world's biggest stages for athletic competition.

"A lot of times athletes feel a lack of value because they have to be so focused on themselves," she explained.

Her counsel: "You're right where you're supposed to be, doing what God created you to do. It's OK. He's happy with you."

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