Reports of post-competition partying and condom hand-outs at the Olympics show the need for Catholic athletes to be grounded in their faith and the need for the sporting world to recover the idea of athletics as a forge for virtue, the head of a Catholic athletes’ organization says.
On Thursday MSNBC’s Today Show reported on Olympic athletes’ behavior after their competitions had ended.
While acknowledging athletes’ self-control, the Today Show cited event organizers’ distribution of 100,000 condoms and recounted off-the-record rumors of liaisons between residents of the Olympic Village as evidence of “hot nights” at the international event.
In a Friday interview, CNA sought comment on the spiritual dangers and benefits of sports from Ray McKenna, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Catholic Athletes for Christ.
McKenna said he knew 2008 Summer Olympics swimmer Kate Ziegler, but had never spoken with her about anything discussed in the Today Show article.
Hearsay of “somewhat bacchanalian excesses,” in his view, probably had “a lot of truth to it.”
The condom distribution, McKenna said, seems to be evidence of that lifestyle and sends the message that such a lifestyle is permitted and even encouraged at the Olympic Village.
“If there is encouragement to distribute condoms, at the very least there should be encouragement to practice your faith at those events,” McKenna told CNA.
While Olympians may have a “play hard, party hard” reputation, McKenna said athletes’ behavior differs with each person. Gossip about their pastimes is a “real danger,” in his view, and detracts from the story of a sport.
He encouraged Catholic athletes to be grounded in their faith and to engage in prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments and spiritual reading. They should also have a “discipleship relationship” with a spiritual mentor to help combat the dangers of off-the-field activities.
He named dangers such as drunk driving and the number of children fathered out of wedlock by some sportsmen.
Asked whether the self-control of sports is related to self-control for the sake of moral and spiritual integrity, McKenna gave a “clear and definitive ‘yes’.”
“Faith can inform sports, so that one’s personal faith can be beneficial for one’s sports life,” he explained.
Discipline is very valuable in one’s spiritual life and in sports because it cultivates the virtues of dedication, determination, constant practice and repetition, McKenna explained.
One central aim of Catholic Athletes for Christ, he reported, was to tell athletes “be good in your faith, be good in your sport.”
He encouraged athletes to stay bonded with friends of similar faith so that they can share their struggles and can be better disciples.
“Historically, sports was considered to be a ‘virtue-making machine.’ The values that correspond with sports were considered to go hand in glove with those that go into being a person of integrity and faith,” McKenna told CNA.
“Vince Lombardi, the former coach of the Green Bay Packers, was a good example of that. He lived his faith and it was integral to his coaching.”
McKenna thought it was unfortunate that people now associate sports with vice.
He cited a quotation of Pope Pius XII, who said that sports “develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor.”
The virtues of the Olympic model, fraternity, goodwill, and teamwork, are also praiseworthy. McKenna added that sports and athletes’ “heroic efforts” have been the vehicle used to overcome some “real, terrible social problems” such as racial discrimination.
In athletics, “great bonds” which otherwise could not have happened have formed between different races, ethnicities and faiths.
Catholic Athletes for Christ encourages athletes in their spiritual formation, particularly as Catholics, McKenna reiterated. The organization works with the Vatican often to help ensure access to the sacraments and to Mass and Bible studies.
The group also advocates better access to ministers and rabbis so athletes of other beliefs can practice their faith.
Its website is http://www.catholicathletesforchrist.com.