In the minutes before the biggest race of her career, cyclist Erin Mirabella capped a lifetime of training with one more piece of preparation. Outside the indoor cycling track at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, in a quiet spot behind the velodrome’s grandstands, Mirabella huddled to pray with her husband, Chris, and their Colorado Springs chaplain, Tony Silengo. “You’ve got to find peace,” said Silengo, who has led weekly Bible study at the U.S. Olympic Training Center for more than 12 years. “Having spiritual beliefs is definitely a huge advantage. That’s what the study is about, developing that advantage, developing that peace when you need it. It’s definitely considered part of their training, but more importantly part of their lifestyle.” Silengo is a staff evangelist at Hilltop Baptist Church. Of the approximately 130 resident athletes at the training center, three to 16 athletes attend the Bible study, depending on competition schedules. Silengo and others such as Gene Davis and Steve Burak volunteer their spiritual services with no connection to the U.S. Olympic Committee. The link between the Olympics and religion has existed as long as the Games themselves. The Greeks founded the Games and opened each Olympics by lighting a flame at the altar of god Zeus. The Games lasted more than 1,100 years until the Roman emperor Theodosius abolished them, saying they were pagan rituals. Fifteen hundred years later, the modern Olympics were revived in 1896. But the trick for the U.S. Olympic Committee — a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress — is to balance the many needs of many athletes, some of which could be in conflict. At the training center or on any team, an athlete wanting spiritual help or wanting to offer spiritual help might be living and training with an athlete who has completely different religious views (or none at all) and would be offended by proselytizing. The USOC has no official chaplain. If training center athletes request religious counseling, chaplains at nearby Memorial Hospital are available. “Our country was founded on principles of freedom and liberty, and one of the most important liberties we enjoy is the freedom to choose our own religion,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said. “Our role is to facilitate and support, not to impose.” Madeline Manning Mims can speak from two of the many sides of this complex issue. She was the 1968 Olympic gold medalist in the 800-meter run and a four-time U.S. Olympian. Mims, who was outspoken about her faith as an athlete, is now an Olympic chaplain. Mims counseled competitors at five Olympics. Host cities including Turin, site of the 2006 Winter Games, are required to provide volunteer chaplains for athletes in the Olympic village. Chaplains pay their way to the Olympics and are required to sign a contract promising not to recruit athletes to a particular church or faith, Mims said. She said two chaplains were sent home for trying to convert athletes at the Barcelona and Atlanta Games. At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, nicknamed the “Mormon Games,” about 30 volunteer chaplains were among the few outsiders allowed into the heavily secured Olympic village. Even a cab driver got into the act, passing out Bibles to clients. “You’re there to serve those who want to be served,” Mims said. “You’re not there to proselytize people.” As at the Olympics, proselytizing within the training center’s mostly secular athlete population is a no-no. “This is an Olympic training center,” said Dean Morrison, a dormitory supervisor and retired wrestler who leads another Bible study group. “We’re here to train full time, even me. If you knock on my door and I’m taking a nap, you’re going to tick me off.” Zach Krych is a weightlifter who lives at the training center. He said he keeps talk of his faith low-key. But he won’t tiptoe. If someone asks, he’ll speak up. Still, he has encountered friction among athletes at the training center. “I don’t consider it hostile, except for a couple people,” Krych said. “Most people are pretty respectful. It’s a wide variety. No one wants to talk about it. You start talking about it, half the people get up and leave.” While religion can inspire, some Olympic athletes use it as a safety net as much as a boost to dreams of Games gold. When you’re facing the culmination of years of training and dreaming, the prospect of failure can be terrifying, turning limbs to Jell-O and minds to mush. “In one second, you make it or break it,” Krych said. “You’re scared spitless,” Mims said. After her prayer session in Athens, Erin Mirabella turned in the ride of her life. She placed fourth. Later, officials awarded Mirabella the bronze medal after Maria-Luisa Calle Williams failed a drug test. But in an unprecedented flip-flop, more than a year later Mirabella was forced to return the medal Oct. 28 after an arbitration panel reversed the decision. Mirabella did not take her battle to court. She did not throw a tantrum, or refuse to return the precious prize, a reward for a lifetime of sweat and singular purpose. Returning the medal was “extremely difficult,” she said in a statement. But “I want to do what is right and what is fair. . . . My faith, my husband, family, friends and the United States Olympic Committee have helped make this difficult situation easier and I am thankful for that.” Instead of making a scene, Mirabella made etchings. Before packing up the medal for the mail courier, Mirabella traced its surface onto pieces of paper. The culmination of her dream, once a solid disc of bronze, is now just a shadow on a wispy page. For Mirabella, her faith more tangible than a medal, that is enough. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0259 or firstname.lastname@example.org THE SERIES In a five-day series, The Gazette examines some of the ways that religion manifests itself in sports from preps to pros and beyond. Sunday: Evangelism through sports Monday: Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the difference between public and parochial high schools Tuesday: Religion and sports in college Wednesday: Preaching and the pros Today: Olympians and God To share thoughts on the series, e-mail email@example.com or fax to 719-636-0163. At gazette.com, you can express your views online by clicking on “comment on this story.”
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