God at the games: Religion and the 2016 Olympics

From Aug. 5 to Aug. 21, all eyes will turn to Brazil, where the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro. And while the Olympics are a secular endeavor, religion can be found there, if you know where to look. Many athletes are religious, with followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and untold numbers of minority religions practicing their faiths — some openly, some privately — as they vie for medals in the quadrennial Summer Games. Team USA is no exception, with athletes who have been public about their Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and Islam. Here are some hot sources to help you create religion-related Olympic coverage even if you watch the whole 16-day event from your living room.

Team USA athletes who are religious

Team USA maintains a searchable database of biographies of all of its athletes on its website. Here is a list of some of the American Olympians who have spoken publicly about their faith.

  • Simone Biles, gymnastics, Roman Catholic
  • Mackenzie Brown, archery, evangelical Christian
  • David Boudia, diving, evangelical Christian
  • Gabby Douglas, gymnastics, evangelical Christian
  • Brady Ellison, archery, evangelical Christian
  • Kendrick Farris, weightlifting, evangelical Christian
  • Allyson Felix, track and field, Baptist
  • English Gardner, track and field, evangelical Christian
  • Katharine Holmes, fencing, Catholic
  • Steele Johnson, diving, evangelical Christian
  • Katie Ledecky, swimming, Roman Catholic
  • Ibtihaj Muhammad, fencing, Islam
  • Lexi Thompson, golf, evangelical Christian
  • Bubba Watson, golf, evangelical Christian
  • Kerri Jennings Walsh, beach volleyball, Christian
  • Serena Williams, tennis, Jehovah’s Witness
  • Venus Williams, tennis, Jehovah’s Witness


International sources

  • Afeosemime Adogame

    Afe Adogame is a professor of religion and society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studies religious experiences in Africa and the African diaspora. He previously served as senior lecturer in religious studies and world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, U.K.

  • Cassie Carstens

    Cassie Carstens is an evangelical Christian leader who has headed several sports-related Christian ministries and is the founder of The World Needs a Father. He served as chaplain to the 1995 South African national rugby team, which won the world championship. He is speaking at the inaugural Global Conference on Sports and Christianity about the redemptive role of sports. He is based in Durbanville, South Africa.

    Contact: +27 21 975 0985.
  • Paul Cartledge

    Paul Cartledge is a professor at Clare College at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. He is an expert on ancient Greece and has written extensively about the religious roots of the ancient Olympics.

  • Anne Wafula Strike

    Anne Wafula Strike is a two-time Paralympic athlete and a motivational speaker based in Harlow, England. She will speak at the inaugural Global Conference on Sports and Christianity in August 2016 on the subject of Christianity and the Paralympics. Contact via her website.

  • John Swinton

    John Swinton is a nurse, ordained minister and theologian who teaches at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He has written extensively on the theology of disability; his publications include Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church (as co-editor) and the article “The Body of Christ Has Down’s Syndrome: Theological Reflections on Disability, Vulnerability and Graceful Communities.” He was co-organizer of the 2007 inaugural conference of the European Society for the Study of Disability and Theology.

    He will speak at the inaugural Global Conference on Sports and Christianity on the subject of the “virtues and vices” of disability and sport.

National sources

  • Kulsoom Abdullah

    Kulsoom Abdullah is a Muslim who wore hijab when she competed in weightlifting. She is the author of the blog Lifting Covered. She is featured in the documentary The Pakistan Four and is currently a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

    She can speak about the experience of Ibtihaj Muhammad, whom she does not know personally, of competing in hijab.

  • Ray McKenna

    Ray McKenna is president and founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. He can talk about the relationship between sports and religion and the role suffering, seen through a religious prism, can play for an athlete. He can also talk about Catholic doctrine and sports and what Catholic pontiffs have said or written about sports.

  • Anthony J. Moretti

    Anthony J. Moretti is an associate professor of communication at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pa. He wrote a chapter on religion and the modern Olympics for the book Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Centuryedited by Brad Schultz and Mary Lou Sheffer. Moretti’s chapter looks both at world religions at the Olympic Games and the games as “civic religion.”

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