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Religion once played a starring role in the Olympics. Is that still the case today?

You’ll have to look closely to spot religion’s influence on the Tokyo Olympics

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The Olympic rings float on a barge in Tokyo ahead of the Summer Olympics.

The Olympic rings float on a barge ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Monday, July 19, 2021, in Tokyo.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

In the early days of the Olympics, religion played a starring role. Faith leaders had front-row seats to the events and many athletes dedicated their triumphs to the gods.

“Even the prizes were religious — crowns of olive leaves made from trees in a sacred grove dedicated to Zeus,” Religion News Service reported in 2016.

Religion still matters to many modern Olympic athletes, but its influence on the Games is harder to spot. You’ll have to pay close attention to Olympics coverage over the next few weeks to catch athletes praying before their events or champions thanking God during their media interviews.

I, for one, feel up to the challenge and, to prepare, I did some research over the weekend into what religion-related storylines to follow during the Olympics this year.

Here are my favorite discoveries:

Many members of Team USA credit their faith with helping them stay calm.

Grace McCallum, from the women’s gymnastics squad, and Katie Ledecky, from the swimming team, are two of the many American athletes competing in this year’s Games who have talked about drawing on faith to prepare for competition. Both women are Catholic and believe their church has given them the tools to stay calm and humble in the face of a seemingly overwhelming challenge.

“My dad is sending me a couple of prayers to say before each practice in the morning. I think that will be really helpful to keep me at peace,” McCallum said earlier this month.

The pandemic will limit athletes’ access to spiritual resources during the games.

Speaking of Catholics, the Archdiocese of Tokyo announced last week that Olympic athletes and support staff will not be allowed to attend church in-person during their stay due to COVID-19 concerns. The archdiocese will, instead, offer online worship services and other devotional video content to the athletes, Religion News Service reported.

I’m guessing Catholic athletes won’t be the only competitors feeling detached from their typical religious routines over the next few weeks. The pandemic-related restrictions in place this year include limitations on what members of various Olympic teams can do during their free time and where they can go within Japan.

Religious diversity will be on display.

During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics for the United States. She helped her fencing team win a bronze medal.

This year, there will be more hijab-related history made when Sarah Gamal, who is Egyptian, becomes the first Olympic basketball referee to wear a hijab during the Games, ABC News reported. Look for her in the 3-on-3 basketball events.

Some American Jewish athletes took their talents to the Israeli team.

Israeli citizenship laws create an alternate route to the Olympics for some Jewish American athletes. These competitors often take immense pride in being able to compete for a country that plays a significant role in their religious community, according to the Forward.

This year, the Israeli baseball team “is made up almost entirely of Jewish American minor league baseball players,” the article noted.

Fresh off the press

Even before COVID-19 arrived to heighten the risk of attending in-person worship, churches struggled to address safety concerns. In the aftermath of shootings at houses of worship, faith leaders would promise security reforms, but they often struggled to know where to turn for help. A new bipartisan bill, the Pray Safe Act, aims to solve this problem. Check out my latest story to learn more.

Term of the week: Loki

Loki is the titular character of the latest Marvel show on Disney+ to take the world by storm. In the Marvel universe, Loki is Thor’s brother and the god of mischief. He’s a trickster who causes major problems for the group of superheroes known as the Avengers before teaming up with them.

Loki is also the god of mischief in Norse mythology. And, as you might have guessed, Norse mythology existed long before Marvel. That’s why Disney’s ownership of the copyright for Loki is controversial, despite the fact that it only covers their interpretation of the god, according to Religion News Service.

What I’m reading...

When an apartment building collapsed in Surfside, Florida, last month, dozens of men, women and children lost their lives. Now, many community members are looking for God in the rubble, according to the Miami New Times. “Being angry at your god, questioning them, asking how they could allow such a catastrophe to happen — these things are important to the healing process,” said one pastor in the piece.

In last week’s newsletter, I highlighted key findings from the Census of American Religion. One of the data points I didn’t talk about was the survey’s somewhat controversial claim that the number of mainline Protestants in the U.S. is on the rise. Political scientist Ryan Burge wrote a great piece for Religion Unplugged on the controversy, which tried to explain why it’s really, really hard to accurately measure religion.

Since its launch a few years ago, I’ve mostly steered clear of TikTok, a social media app that features a diverse array of short, often well-crafted videos. But I’m reconsidering that choice after reading a Religion News Service article this week on some of the app’s most unique faith-related content. Apparently, users who take the time to debate Bible translations are often rewarded with hundreds of thousands of video views.

Odds and ends

Here are some funny religion-related tweets I spotted last week: 1. The pastor with four legs. 2. A grammatical debate involving, among other things, Satan. 3. Pope Francis gets The Onion treatment.

On a totally separate note, last week I was surprised to learn that Americans’ growing interest in mindfulness meditation may actually be a bad thing.