- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TURIN, Italy — In a city famed for a holy relic, religious leaders have mobilized vigorously to provide Olympians with a large corps of chaplains and services at their villages ranging from Orthodox vespers to Islamic prayer to Buddhist meditation.

Although some competitors avail themselves of these offerings, others find their own distinctive ways to fuse faith and sport. U.S. cross-country racer Rebecca Dussault, for example, has inscribed her skis with the name of Pier Giorgio Frassati, a beatified Catholic outdoorsman who roamed the mountains around Turin before his death at age 24 in 1925.

“My faith comes first,” Dussault said. “Then I’m a family woman. Then I’m an athlete. That’s how I find balance.”

Home of the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus Christ’s burial cloth, the Olympic city has been preparing for the spiritual side of the Games since local religious leaders formed an interfaith committee in 2003. The group now coordinates the work of more than 90 chaplains on call to assist the athletes, and some teams have brought official chaplains of their own.

The two largest Olympic villages — in Turin and the mountain town of Sestriere — have interfaith centers with daily services for Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Attendance is often sparse, but pastors say there is a steady demand from athletes for individual counseling and support.

Paul Kobylarz, a Michigan native who played college and minor league hockey, is in Turin as a pastor, helping coordinate the Protestant chaplains. He said three kinds of athletes seek out the chaplains — the curious, the deeply devout and those in some sort of personal crisis.

“Maybe they’re upset because they lost a medal,” Mr. Kobylarz said. “They build their whole identity through sports, [and] when sports don’t go as they hoped, it can be hard.”

Clay Mull, a U.S. speedskater, said his faith makes competing less stressful.

“It’s taken a weight off my shoulders, taken the pressure off,” said Mull, who was raised as a Southern Baptist and now attends an evangelical church in Salt Lake City. He and several other athletes are getting spiritual backing during the Games from a pastor affiliated with a Dutch-based ministry called Sports Witnesses.

Other openly religious Americans include bobsledder Brock Kreitzburg, who was a chaplain at a retirement home while earning his divinity degree, and speedskater Derek Parra, who makes the sign of the cross before races.

Dussault, from Gunnison, Colo., has made Frassati her patron saint for the Olympics — culminating a reverence for him that begin in 1993 when, as a 12-year-old, she heard Pope John Paul II praise the adventuresome Turin native during a papal visit to Denver.

“There are so many parallels between his life and mine,” Dussault said of Frassati, who like her was a hiker and cross-country skier before he died of polio contracted during his work with the poor in Turin. He was beatified in 1990, a key step on the path to sainthood.

Dussault, the fastest American in her opening race Sunday, is busy with training, races and helping her husband with their 4-year-old son, but she has found time to pray at Frassati’s tomb in Turin and attend a multicultural Mass in Sestriere.

“That’s the No. 1 priority,” she said. “I was one of the readers.”

At least at her competition venues, Dussault said openly devout athletes are a rarity.

“We’re less than 1 percent,” she said. “We did a multifaith Bible study at the World Cup [earlier this season] in Canada, and there were two Canadians, one Norwegian and me — that’s as many Christians as we could round up.”

Mr. Kobylarz, the Protestant pastor, agreed that athletes like Dussault are a small minority.

“But for those who are devout, it’s very important to have a support base,” he said.

Aldo Bertinetti, the Catholic representative on the interfaith committee, was philosophical.

“Society in general is mostly nonbelievers,” he said.

Yet Mr. Bertinetti made clear that the corps of chaplains was not so eager for business that they would start playing favorites in the Games. He told of one priest who refused an Italian racer’s request to bless his skis.

“It’s like when you have two nation’s armies, each asking God to be on their side,” Bertinetti said. “How can God know which to choose?”

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