Every Olympics has its small cadre of chaplains whose job is to tend to the spiritual needs of athletes. But rarely does that care confront the big issues -- life and death -- as it did in Vancouver just hours before the 2010 Opening Ceremony.
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, died Feb. 12 during a practice run when he lost control of his sled and slammed into a steel pole at 90 mph.
The Rev. David Wells, who leads the interfaith team of chaplains at the athletes' Olympic Villages in Vancouver and Whistler, said his first action was to confirm his hunch that the fallen luger was Russian Orthodox.
His second was to find the priest who could comfort Kumaritashvili's teammates. It turned out that the Orthodox priest accompanying the Russian team was willing and stepped into the role of chaplain for the Georgian athletes.
Chaplains who speak Russian were posted in the multifaith centers in each of the two villages and remembrance books were set up in separate memorial rooms for those who dropped by.
"A regular stream of people in both villages have been signing those," Wells said earlier this week. "There were some people with tears."
The books will be given to the athlete's family in Georgia after the Games.
If the episode demonstrated the worth of the Olympic chaplaincy program, it also showed something else: that the role of a chaplain is mostly to just be there.
"We are just a presence," says Wells, who is the general superintendent for The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, which is the Canadian counterpart of the Assemblies of God in the United States.
There is no proselytizing by the chaplains who, at the mandate of the International Olympic Committee, represent the world's five major faith traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
"We're the encouraging arm of the organizers," Wells says.
No 'Mormon' Games
That sounds familiar to the Rev. Caryl Marsh, an Episcopal priest who was a chaplain during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and helped provide 24-hour coverage at the Olympic Village's interfaith house.
Besides private rooms for prayer and meditation, there was a living room with coffee and cookies at interfaith house, which had walls painted with such words as "unity," "peace," "harmony" and "love." A chapel across the street staged religious services for various denominations.
"Mostly what we did was hang around and be available [in case] they just wanted somebody to talk to," remembers Marsh, who was one of 30 chaplains.
Jan Saeed, who was chairwoman the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable that organized the spiritual component for Utah's Games, says the chaplains took pains to show no favorites among faith traditions or countries.
"We didn't take sides for anyone," she recalls. "We cheered everyone on."
But that attitude of inclusivity, she says, took several years of hard work leading up to the Games. Some observers feared the 2002 Olympics would turn into the "Mormon" Games, given the heavy organizing and volunteer involvement by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church's desire to make a good impression on the world.
Involvement by dozens of other faith representatives -- and LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's reminders to Mormons that they were there to serve, not proselytize -- kept the Olympics from being associated too closely with the LDS Church, says Saeed, a Baha'i.
"It turned out to be very positive, inclusive after we worked on it."
Interfaith legacy lives on
The interfaith roundtable, which began as a subcommittee of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, continues to meet eight years after the Games.
The roundtable's 2010 Interfaith Week, with the theme "Many Faiths -- One Family: Building a World of Harmony," winds up Sunday with a 6 p.m. music tribute in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Dancers and musicians from a number of faith traditions will perform.
The roundtable -- and the interfaith good will it still engenders -- says Saeed, "is a huge legacy."
It's not as if the interfaith house during Salt Lake City's Games were magnets for huge numbers of athletes. Indeed, most competitors were focused on their sports, not their faiths.
Marsh remembers one athlete in 2002 telling her, "I don't need prayers. I need chocolate" -- a line she still finds amusing.
Wells says the multifaith centers and various religious services in Vancouver draw handfuls or perhaps dozens of athletes, certainly not a majority of the roughly 5,000 who compete.
Athletes who do attend services or visit the center, he says, typically are those for whom faith or spirituality is "a regular part of who they are."
In some countries, athletes are accustomed to receiving a blessing before competing, Wells says, and that's something chaplains regularly do.
He also has found that he and the other chaplains can be an important resource for even the most fundamental of questions.
When Muslim athletes at the Olympic Village in Whistler wondered which direction they should face while praying, the chaplains had a ready answer:
"It's 16 degrees off north," Wells says, "because it [Mecca] is closer over the North Pole."
Of the 38 fully accredited chaplains, 28 hail from Christian denominations, reflecting the faith allegiances of the athletes. A number of Jewish rabbis and Buddhists, Wells explains, have partial accreditations that allow them to help with services at the two villages.
None of the chaplains is LDS, Wells says, because his calls to the area stake never were returned.
The Vancouver Organizing Committee, he adds, took pains to ensure the multifaith centers were accessible for athletes.
"We are right in the heart of both villages."