After 17 days of competitions the curtain fell on the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, the “new horizons Games” for Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For the first time a Holy See delegation, formally invited by the IOC and led by the Under Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture (PCC), Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca, was invited to the opening ceremony and to the Olympic Games session that preceded it on February 5-7 in their capacities as observers. There had been a precedent in 2016, when Msgr. Sánchez de Toca, who also serves as Director of the Sport department of the Vatican Dicastery, participated in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio, but on that occasion it was a personal invitation linked to PCC-IOC relations. These relations date back to the meeting of IOC President Thomas Bach with the President of the Vatican Dicastery Gianfranco Ravasi on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Italian National Olympic Committee in 2014, followed by His Eminence’s official visit to IOC headquarters in Lausanne, followed by the invitation to participate as invited guests at the opening ceremony of the Games in RIO and IOC’s participation at the International Conference “Sport at the Service of Humanity” held in the Vatican in October 2016. Bach’s invitation to the opening ceremony and in the Olympic session, “was not personal – pointed out Msgr. Sánchez de Toca – it came as an invitation in my capacities as representative of the Holy See.”
Is a stable relationship likely in the short term? The official nature of our presence in PyeongChang strengthens our ongoing mutual cooperation and it goes in the direction of a stable relationship.
Nothing precludes a permanent agreement in the future – probably through the Pontifical Council for Culture –regulating Holy See – IOC cooperation
Although it is not an inter-governmental relationship it is of great import, for the latter is the supreme authority of world sport.
How were you received? At the beginning the presence of a priest in the session’s works was met with a certain amount of surprise on the part of the delegates, then, when it was learned that it was a delegation from the Vatican, the feeling of surprise turned into a warm welcome. I believe that everyone has appreciated our presence here.
Which major themes were addressed? IOC sessions constitute the highest governing body of the organization. It was a two-day meeting with a very busy agenda. The sanctions on the Russian Olympic Committee resulting from the “systematic manipulation” of the anti-doping system in the Sochi Games was the first item on the agenda along with the decision to allow athletes with no history of doping to compete as neutrals. Another item was the 2020 agenda aimed at making the Games more sustainable, transparent and closer to citizenry, starting with candidacy procedures that should involve institutions as well as the population as a whole, and the possibility of reusing dedicated sport facilities once the Games are over. Other issues included that of gender equality – not only in sport competitions but also in governing bodies – and the Youth Olympic Games that after the October 2018 edition in Buenos Aires will be held in Africa in 2022, in a locality yet to be decided.
You have witnessed an opening ceremony that will be recorded in history.
What was it like? When the hosting team paraded at the closing ceremony bearing not its own banner but that of united Korea, a blue outline of the Korean peninsula on a white background,
It was a very emotional moment for everyone, especially for the Korean people who experience the Country’s separation as something unnatural, an open wound inflicted over 60 years ago.
The President of the Republic, Moon Jae-in, recalled that owing to the division he became the son of refugees. Many families in South Korea have relatives on the other side. Also President Bach, German citizen, remembered his past as an athlete in a divided Country.
It testified to the success of sport diplomacy
experienced also on other occasions, and which in the face of the escalation of declarations of war has shown political leaders a way out. In the light of the above, Back said that sport cannot create peace but small signs like this one can pave the way. He pointed out that athletes have played their part in this respect. At the closing ceremony he said that sport can unite and build bridges. He defined them the “Games of new horizons” and assured that IOC will pursue the path of Olympic dialogue. On his part Moon Jae-in accepted the invitation to visit Pyongyang once the Games are over.
These are small signs and channels of dialogue that gives us hope. The world of sport has played its part, now it’s up to political leaders to make the most of such openness.
All world Countries and a polychromatic religious landscape: what has been your experience at personal level, as Catholic priest? The Olympic Village had multi-confessional areas with dedicated halls for meditation and prayer, in our case for the celebration of the Holy Mass. The Olympic chaplain was the chaplain of the national Korean team with approximately one hundred athletes, 15 of whom are Catholic, but some of the teams had their own chaplain. As an official invitation was needed to enter the Village I celebrated Mass every day in my room. Then some IOC members asked me if I could celebrate it for everyone, so the last day of my stay here I celebrated Mass in a hotel room with some 30 people attending the service.
Is it possible to encounter God at the Olympic Games?
God can be encountered everywhere, the Lord is never distant from the heart that seeks Him.
The Olympic Games are also an opportune time for the encounter with God. While on the one side there is a major focus on the body, involving a great amount of adrenaline and physical energy that is not always channelled in the right direction, on the other there is the loneliness that individual athletes face before the competition, and, in case of defeat, the humiliation of failure. These are propitious moments for encountering God, like the joy of victory and the indescribable emotion transmitted by sport to all those who practice and follow it.
The Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympics will be held in Buenos Aires, October 6 to 18. Will you be there? We hope so. We bode farewell with the words: “see you in Buenos Aires.” Those Games have a special meaning for us because they will take place in Buenos Aires and because they will be held simultaneously with the Synod for young people scheduled to take place October 3 to 20 in Rome. The values of the Olympic movement and Gospel values converge.
We will be present at the Games in Argentina with a small conference we are currently working on with the IOC on theme of faith and sport, an interreligious approach.