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Just as many are settling back into routines after the busy holidays, others are eagerly awaiting something that happens only once every four years.

In one month, on Feb. 9, the Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Athletes from all over the world will gather to skate, ski, and luge their way toward excellence. But the Olympics aren’t just supposed to be about national pride.

The Games are meant to inspire a world often divided by politics, economics and — yes — religion. The five interconnecting rings that symbolize the Games are blue, black, red, yellow and green, framed on the Olympic flag by a white background. At least one of those colors can be found in each nation’s flag, showing the universality of the Olympics.

But religious leaders haven’t always viewed the Olympics with favor. The early Christian church aggressively sought to end the Olympics because of their pagan roots. Emperor Theodosius banned the games, and his successor destroyed the 40,000-seat stadium of Olympia.

As an article in Christianity Today noted, “New historical research suggests Emperor Theodosius may have had some very good reasons for outlawing the Games — ancient Olympia sponsored a few events the International Olympic Committee might just look askance at today. Not to mention what went on outside the arena.”

Today, leaders of all religious groups may want to take a page from the IOC as they struggle to be heard in an increasingly secular society.

The IOC’s values education program reaches out to children in mostly urban areas to help them learn about “life values such as excellence, respect and friendship.” The program offers free teaching resources created by the IOC and based on “the principles of Olympism.”

It aims to encourage children toward healthy lifestyles, social inclusion, gender balance, and physical and academic literacy, while stressing the need to rebuild local communities. As its website notes, the program “communicates the benefit of sport and physical activity through an understanding of Olympism and its impact on individual health, enjoyment, and social interaction.”

These may all be worthy goals, but seem to ignore the basic human need for the spiritual. That is where religious institutions could step in, working together outside of public school classrooms to teach children about the value of moral, ethical and spiritual practices.

Not everyone can win a gold medal, but we can all reach the potential for which we were created.

McNeal is Senior Staff Chaplain and Coordinator for Church Relations at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. Contact her at