WASHINGTON 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.
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.
The U.S. Olympic Committee does not instruct its athletes one way or the other about displaying their faith at the Games. Each athlete must attend the U.S. Olympic Ambassadors Program, which, USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said, "is designed to provide a more complete understanding of the role as an ambassador of the country as an Olympic athlete." The program essentially reinforces good manners, sportsmanship and behavior in a foreign
"There is no discussion of religion," Seibel said. "Frankly, it's none of our business. We, as an Olympic committee, never do anything to impede an athlete's freedom from expressing faith."
Several U.S. athletes, when interviewed at last month's Olympic track and field trials, said they do not plan to alter routines that include a prayer or spiritual gesture either before or after a race or event. Bryan Clay, the U.S. champion in the decathlon and the silver medalist at the 2004 Games in Athens, said it is almost habitual for him to pray before each of the 10 events. He'll squat down in the block or behind the starting line, say a prayer and then compete.
"It feels like it's something I have to do," Clay said, "and if I don't, I feel something's missing and not because I think God won't bless me, but it's part of getting ready."
U.S. heptathlete Hyleas Fountain doesn't throw her arms skyward and say a quick prayer until after each of her seven events. She said it does not signify triumph the heptathlon winner isn't determined until the last event is completed but rather gratitude.
"That's my celebration," said Fountain, who won the event at the U.S. trials with a personal-best score. "That's my way of thanking God for giving me this opportunity."
Forty years ago at the Summer Games in Mexico City, Madeline Manning Mims became the first and still the only U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in the 800. In an interview afterward on ABC, she said she ran for "the glory of God, the glory of Jesus." Manning Mims later was ordained as a Protestant minister.
At the past six Summer Games, she has served as part of an international community of voluntary chaplains. She said her group is meant to serve athletes from countries that do not have an official religion like the United States and do not send chaplains with their respective delegations. She said she never has had difficulty gaining access to the Olympic Village. Earlier this year, however, the Beijing Olympic Committee announced that foreign chaplains will not be allowed in the Olympic Village; all chaplains at the Games will be state employees.
Manning Mims, 60, said she will be in Beijing on her own, but acknowledged she has to find creative ways to reach the athletes who request her support.
"We know our people," she said. "I don't think the Chinese chaplains have been trained enough to know what this is all about."
In keeping with past Olympic hosts, Beijing Olympic officials have established a multidenominational church in the athletes' village. The Multi-Faith Center has prayer/meditation rooms and has Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish services.
Nick Willis, who came to the United States in 2002 to run at the University of Michigan, will run the 800 and 1,500 for his native New Zealand. Willis said he embraced Christianity after moving to the United States and is open about displaying it on the track. "It's very clear that God asks us to share this," he said. "My faith would be false if I didn't share it at every situation."
But earlier this year, after he was named to the Olympic team, Willis said he was asked by the New Zealand Olympic Committee to sign a pledge, which he said ordered him "to refrain from any political, religious or other forms of discussion at events or in the Olympic Village or risk harm from the New Zealand Olympic Committee."
"I was a little bit flustered about how I should approach" the pledge, Willis said, "but it's something you should come to expect," given the controversy surrounding China's social policies.
After giving it much thought, Willis said he decided to sign the pledge. And though he said he plans to show his faith on the track, he will be careful about what he says in interviews with reporters, especially those from China.