The Olympic Games bring people together across nations, faiths and backgrounds. Whether it was ever intended to be or not, the festive competition may just be the largest interfaith gathering in the world.
More than 10,000 athletes from over 200 countries will compete in the Rio 2016 Olympics, which is expected to draw millions of visitors from around the world. During its busiest periods, the Rio 2016 committee expects over 17,000 athletes and officials will be living in the Olympic village.
With such a turnout, the Olympic committee is preparing for a high demand on spiritual resources. To satisfy that need, Olympic and Paralympic Village feature a multi-faith center with chaplains and prayer spaces representing Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.
“Our job is to provide athletes with a place where they can find comfort and spiritual peace, whatever their religion,” Father Leandro Lenin Tavares, a Rio de Janeiro priest coordinating the center, said in a statement. “We are a symbol of peace, brotherhood and the unity of peoples.”
The center opened its doors on July 24 and is operating from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. through the end of the Paralympic Games in late September. Each of the religions has their own worship space able to hold roughly 50 people at any time, with different spaces available for Muslim men and women, who frequently pray separately.
Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are each represented by four chaplains, while four Roman Catholic chaplains and four Protestant chaplains are present to serve the needs of Christian athletes, according to the Rio 2016 website.
Catholic leaders will celebrate daily Masses, according to Catholic News Service, but the center will also host worship services of other faiths as well as one-on-one religious support.
Brazil’s Catholic majority has steadily declined over the last several decades, with a concurrent rise in Protestant worship. While Pentecostal churches are cropping up and evangelicals gaining political influence, other faiths, like the Afro-Brazilian traditions of Candomblé and Umbanda, spiritist movements, and Buddhism and Islam have also grown despite hostility from Christian groups.
Tavares said the five religions represented at the center were chosen based on the overall religious make-up of athletes competing, though the selection follows in the tradition of past Olympic games. He added, however, that the center is able to “accept people from any religion, including spiritism and Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda.”
“Religion and spirituality have always played a big role in the sports,” Carl Dambman, a Christian chaplain who served at the Sochi Olympics, told The Huffington Post in 2014.
Athletes come to the chaplains and worship spaces to pray for success, but also to mourn losses, celebrate victories, and receive support for any other concerns present in their lives at the moment, Tavares said. Dambman said he had ministered to competitors who have had deaths in their families, experienced injuries and who are grappling with depression.
For many religious athletes, their spiritual needs don’t get put on hold when they’re training and competing.
“We hope to offer this balance between the physical and the spiritual,” Rabbi Elia Haber, one of the Jewish chaplains at the multi-faith center, said in a statement. “It is really important for the athletes to work on that.”