by: Noella D'Souza
The 2018 Winter Olympics marks the beginning of a new, concerted effort to build the relationship between the Vatican and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As in the past, the IOC invited the Vatican to send delegates to represent the nation. The Vatican obliged as a gesture of goodwill and show of their support for reconciliation between North and South Korea. Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, Undersecretary and Head of the Culture and Sports Section for the Pontifical Council for Culture and a former pentathlete, was designated the official delegate. The ceremony was also attended by Stefano Calvigioni, a member of the Italian Olympic Committee who has also worked with the Vatican.
As a representative on behalf of the Pope, Monsignor Sanchez performed multiple duties. He was invited to attend the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang on February 9th, as have past Vatican Olympic representatives for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. As a gesture of friendship, Msgr. Sanchez gifted the trademark yellow and white jerseys of the Athletica Vaticana, the official running club of Vatican City, to the IOC president, Thomas Bach, and all the Korean athletes. Finally, and most notably, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, the IOC invited the Vatican to observe a strategic meeting before the Games from February 5th-7th. Strategic meetings are generally where logistical problems are tackled, sports issues are discussed, host city themes are determined, and critical building projects are approved for future Olympic Games.
While no athletes from the Vatican will be competing in the games, the steps taken for global inclusion and peace represent a key diplomatic step forward. It sets the stage for further strengthening of the relationship between the IOC and the Holy See, and, as Msgr. Sanchez pointed out, although the Vatican may not be competing at the Olympics at present, an invitation from the IOC could open the door for the Holy See’s participation in the United Nations or other international organizations. Msgr. Sanchez also notes that “our [the Vatican’s] Olympic trip is a small demonstration of what a world in peace might be like.”
The role of the Vatican as an official observer encourages interactions between faith and sports as well. Msgr. Sanchez notes that “Since the beginning, there has been a convergence between the sporting world, the Church and the great educator saints who understood the potential that sports have in the integral development of the person.” The Vatican’s interest in participating in the Olympic process affirms the positive impact of sports and competition at a personal and international level.
The IOC’s invitation and Msgr. Sanchez’s gift represent all-important steps to further the IOC-Vatican relationship. These small gestures are essential to relations between the two institutions because the Vatican currently does not have its own Olympic Committee. Building on this relationship is important for world diplomacy and in the event that Vatican athletes compete in future Olympic Games. Another opportunity to further the relations between the International Olympic Committee and the Holy See will come later this year with the Summer Youth Olympic Games, taking place this October in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis’ hometown.