Devout athletes find strength in their faith. But practicing it and elite sports can pose hurdles

It’s been 100 years since a Scottish runner famously refused to race on a Sunday at the Paris Olympics because of his Christian beliefs. Devout top athletes say elite sports performance still poses some hurdles for the faith practices that are central to their lives on and off the field.

At this summer’s Paris Olympics, much of the controversy has centered around Islam, because France’s unique secularism principles forbid its athletes from wearing headscarves as well as other visibly religious symbols — though the ban doesn’t affect Olympians from other countries.

But athletes of different faiths argue sports organizations and major events should better respect the breadth of religious practices, especially as they strive to be more inclusive. To many, faith and spirituality are also essential to mental well-being, which has come under the spotlight especially since U.S. gymnastics star Simone Biles ’ open struggles at the last Olympics.

“Most people would see sports and religion as very separate, but I see a big overlap. Everything we have is a gift from God — He’s the one who’s given me this strength,” said Beatie Deutsch, an Orthodox Jewish runner who qualified to represent Israel in the Tokyo Olympics but didn’t compete because the women’s marathon was scheduled for a Saturday, when she observes shabbat.

“I’d love governing bodies of sports to do more to accommodate religion,” said the 34-year-old American Israeli mother of five. Injuries kept her from qualifying for the Paris Games, but Deutsch recently started training again with her eyes on next year’s World Championship — and the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

Her refusal to race on a day dedicated to the Lord mirrors the 1924 saga of Eric Liddell, immortalized in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell refused to run the heats on a Sunday in his strongest challenge, the 100-meter sprint, but went on to improbably win a gold medal in the 400-meter race.

American Olympic champion Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who broke her own world record at Olympic trials Sunday in the 400-meter hurdles, describes how Liddell’s words about running to glorify God resonated with her in her new book, “Far Beyond Gold.”

Embracing her Christian faith has transformed her life and career, she said, by helping her move beyond doubt and fear.

“For a long time, my identity was in track and field,” she told The Associated Press days before the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. “But I realized that first and foremost, I’m a child of God. It set me free to run the race God has set out for me to run.”

McLaughlin-Levrone, 24, said she has shared devotionals and lessons from her faith journey on Instagram, where she has more than 1 million followers, and prays with her coach, trainer and husband before every race.

When her mind is rooted in God, that’s when she is able to handle the pressures and high expectations of being an Olympic athlete — “especially in track, where things are so uncertain and always changing.”

“That means being in the word, being in prayer, keeping that in the forefront and allowing that to be what centers my mind and not the outside voices of the world,” McLaughlin-Levrone said.

Athletes with a secure attachment to God tend to be less depressed, anxious and lonely than those with a negative perception of a punishing God or those who are not religious, said Laura Upenieks, a Baylor University sociology professor who has studied elite athletes at U.S. colleges.

That’s in large part because they don’t base their self-worth on others’ approval, are less self-centered and can find greater meaning beyond being “only as good as the last race,” Upenieks added.

“Faith gives me the ability to stand firm and to keep going, and it reminds me that there’s always a larger and higher goal to pursue,” said Tunisian steeplechase runner Marwa Bouzayani, 27, as she trained for the Paris Olympics.

A devout Muslim who first competed at the Tokyo Games, she races the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase wearing modest attire, including a hijab or head covering. She regularly trains during Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and water from dawn to sundown — a challenge that this year made the news in France, where the soccer federation refused accommodations for observant players.

“I’ve faced many challenges, whether when it comes to reconciling religious obligations with the demands of training or when it comes to confronting stereotypes and biases, but every challenge I’ve faced has strengthened my resolve,” Bouzayani said.

In fact, she hopes to be a role model for Muslim girls, showing them “that success in elite sports can be realized without forsaking religious values and beliefs.” She also wants to increase awareness in sports circles about the importance of respecting cultural and religious diversity.

Deutsch is a fan of both Bouzayani and McLaughlin-Levrone for their commitment to, and openness about, their faith. She hopes to be a model for Orthodox Jewish girls who might have never seen an elite athlete compete while dressed like them — head covering, long sleeves, skirt below the knee.

In races where every fraction of a second counts, such modest attire can be “a hindrance,” Deutsch said, but inspiring others far outweighs that.

“I hope my story empowers athletes,” she said.

In the past few decades, athletes, coaches and fans have become far more accepting of the need to protect players’ well-being by incorporating mental and spiritual care with physical training, said Tamir Goodman. Known in the late 1990s as “the Jewish Michael Jordan,” he was the only observant Jew playing Division I college basketball in the United States, though never on the Sabbath.

Carl Lewis, a U.S. track and field legend who won nine Olympic gold medals and now mentors young athletes, told the AP that while he doesn’t consider himself religious, he’s a follower of Sri Chinmoy, the late Indian teacher who believed that a spiritual life and running went hand in hand.

“Young athletes now also look to their spirituality for guidance and hope, and I think that is wonderful for them,” he said.

Right after qualifying for Paris, her third Olympics, U.S. high jumper Vashti Cunningham — whose father and coach is longtime NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham — told AP how her faith helps at intense competitions like the Oregon trials.

“Without my spirituality, I feel like I would genuinely be lost,” said Cunningham, 26. “Especially in a high-level sport like this where a lot of people depend on their self and on their strength and on their training. I really just rely on God, and his strength, and his power.”


AP Religion Writer Mariam Fam, Sports Writer Pat Graham and National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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