Sports journalist Stuart Weir describes the role of chaplains on the sporting emotional roller coaster
Kirsty Balfour went to the Beijing Olympics as a medal contender, having won a World championship silver the previous year. In the event it was a disaster. Her time in the heat was three seconds slower that her best. She did not even make the semi-finals. Four years preparation for the Olympics had just gone up in smoke. Tears flowed.
‘I felt very confused and disappointed’, she said. I had just wanted to do a good swim for the team, for the country, for my family. My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my team mates. I just felt I had let people down – all the money and the time that had been invested in working towards the Olympics was gone.’ As a follower of Jesus Christ from childhood, Kirsty was able to process the disappointment, but it was a tough experience to live through.
An experienced sports chaplain once described the Olympics to me as ‘Four funerals and a wedding’ – for every happy winner there are several disappointed competitors. In the moments after the event ends it is natural to feel disappointed, embarrassed and that you have let everyone down. This is the world in which sports chaplains operate.
Jules Wilkinson was a chaplain at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games where she helped to lead an Easter Sunday service for athletes at the Team England camp. She said of her experience in Rio: ‘For athletes, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their sport and therefore it will be the most pressure they will experience in their careers. It’s very important to say that I’m not a psychologist. I’m not adding anything to their sport and not trying to. I’m simply there to represent Jesus and open God’s Word [the Bible] with people. Mostly, my role is just an extension of what I do day to day, meeting up with athletes and encouraging them to keep lifting their eyes to Jesus – something we all need to do.’ Olympic chaplains conduct daily services in the Multi-Faith Centre, but much of the real work is just listening, encouraging and, when appropriate, opening the Bible with an athlete.
In her book My Olympic Dream, Irish boxing gold medallist and now world professional champion Katie Taylor said of church services in the Olympic village: ‘I really enjoyed the service so I went back on the Sunday morning … the place was jammed with athletes. The service was run by the athletes themselves, many of them got up and shared a story of something amazing God had done for them.’
Support in a crisis
Sports chaplaincy is a branch of Christian ministry to the world of sport. Sports Chaplaincy UK, established in 1991 reports about 550 sports chaplains in the UK working in Football, Horse Racing, Rugby League, Rugby Union, Cricket and Athletics. Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United, was a supporter of chaplaincy saying: ‘Chaplains can be of help to all sorts of people involved with sport, when crisis, need or difficulty comes.’
Debbie Flood, who won two Olympic silver medals as a rower and who now works for Christians in Sport in their performance team, understands both sides. In a dozen years as an elite rower, Debbie experienced ‘daily pressures from all directions – the pressure of selection, competition, from coaches, from ourselves, from teammates, from the media, the pressure of expectation, even pressure from the expectation of family and others who are supporting you. The danger for the athlete is that you become your results; that your identity is wrapped up in your results. And it is the nature of sport that you can go from hero to zero overnight through injury or a bad result. So, athletes are on an emotional roller coaster. As a Christian athlete I massively valued the support of someone drawing me back to those deeper truths of who I am and that I am secure in my identity as a child of God, regardless of my performance in the boat.’ Now working as a chaplain, she sees her role in supporting other Christian athletes as ‘to draw them back to God’s truth. It’s about him and how faithful he is and how he’s walking with them strengthening them and encouraging them but also in recognising who they are in Christ’.
In the cauldron of professional sport, it’s good to know that there are professionals who can help sportsmen and women discover value that’s more than gold.