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Common goals unite athletes

Commonwealth Games chaplain, STEVE JONES tells Andrew Stone how inclusivity gives an added dimension to the sporting event

We pray for the athlete to give their best

MORE than 6,600 athletes from 71 territories have spent months preparing to contest 275 gold medals across 25 sports at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.

The event has grown astonishingly since the first Empire Games took place in Canada in 1930 when 400 athletes from 11 countries competed. As the old  British Empire gave way, so the Games became a sporting celebration of the faiths, cultures and traditions of the Commonwealth nations, whose citizens represent almost a third of the world’s population.

The Games’ spirit of inclusivity also means that the teams are made up of athletes with disabilities as well as able-bodied competitors. Whereas the Olympic Games are followed by the Paralympics, the para-sporting events at the Commonwealth Games take place at the same time as the others.

This approach is welcomed by Steve Jones, who is one of 12 Christian chaplains seconded to work in the athletes’ village. 

‘It’s a healthy model,’ he says. ‘Some of the able-bodied athletes who experience being on the same team as athletes with disabilities for the first time say that it has been interesting to meet a para-athlete, and it opens up questions about wider issues.

‘I think it gentles their heart. Some of them can be very focused on their performance, but this inclusivity encourages them to see other people and think about equality, community and what it means to be a human.’

Steve is the minister of a Baptist church in Neath, South Wales, but, while leading the congregation there, has also worked as a chaplain in a number of sports. His experience of sports chaplaincy started eight years ago with the Ospreys rugby union team, whose training base is only a few miles away from Steve’s church.

‘More recently, I’ve served in chaplaincy in disability sports,’ he explains. ‘I’m chaplain of the wheelchair rugby team at the Ospreys. That led to my being a chaplain at the Wheelchair Rugby World Cup in 2015 and in the Blind Football European Championships in the same year.’

Other major sporting events where Steve has worked include the London Olympics and Paralympics, the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011 and the last Commonwealth Games, which were held in Glasgow in 2014.

‘It was a fantastic experience,’ he says. ‘As chaplains, we have our duties in the athletes’ village. There are scheduled times for prayer and worship for athletes who see faith as part of their identity.

‘There are Christian worship services and Bible study every day and there’s a rota for chaplains to lead those sessions.’

However, given the wide variety of backgrounds that make up the people of the Commonwealth, it is not only Christians who are supported while the Games are on.

‘We work in a multifaith centre, and there is support for athletes who are from the five major world faiths,’ Steve explains. ‘If there’s anybody from any other faith, there will be local faith community leaders available for them. 

‘Anyone can drop into the faith centre for a cup of tea and a chat. Sometimes they call in with bigger issues. It may be that something is happening back home while they are away, and they need a confidential chat because they are upset. It can be very demanding.’

Although the chaplains can face demanding situations, Steve describes athletes asking for prayer as ‘the bread and butter of sports tournament chaplaincy’. However, there is one prayer request that Steve and his colleagues do have trouble in meeting.

He laughs: ‘If they ask us to pray that they’ll win a gold medal, we have to say, “Well, what if one of your competitors comes in and asks the same?” It can put us in an awkward position! Instead we pray for the athlete to give their best, to be encouraged and, come what may, to be content with the final outcome.

‘We do see athletes coming back and bringing their medals and wanting to give thanks to God, and we rejoice with them. But the flip side is we meet others who have not reached the level and targets they had hoped for, and so we offer prayers of consolation, reassuring them that God is still with them.’

And it is because of these interactions, and the role that sport plays within modern culture, that Steve believes his work as a chaplain is so important.

‘I believe that sport, along with music, is the greatest cultural phenomenon in our country,’ he enthuses. ‘If Christians aren’t involved in sport or don’t show any interest in it, they are going to be perceived as irrelevant.

‘God has given people sport as a gift.’

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