An Olympic Chaplain
The fatal crash of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old from Georgia, weighed heavily on the opening ceremonies, and chaplains made themselves available to athletes. In a small office in the Olympic Village, Paul Kobylarz leads this year's Christian chaplaincy program, his fifth Olympics to serve as a chaplain.
"There's been a lot of confidence displayed toward us being there as a support to handle the questions that come along with a situation like this—the purpose of life and questions about our mortality," Kobylarz told Christianity Today on Saturday. "We are here to try to answer those questions for the athletes and delegations and to give support in those areas."
Like many of the chaplains, Kobylarz speaks to athletes from personal experience, having spent three years in Sweden playing professional hockey and 20 years working in sports ministry. Working with athletes at the Olympics is different from other kinds of sports ministry, such as acting as a team chaplain for a professional team, said Kobylarz, who recently became the minister of sports outreach at Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis.
"If you are an NFL or NHL team chaplain, you are working with one sport and one coach," Kobylarz said. "Here at the Olympics, you are meeting someone new each time. People drop in from all over the world, and you don't know anything about them or their background, maybe very little about their culture."
Kobylarz was responsible for recruiting Protestant chaplains, so he looked for bilingual chaplains who are in full-time ministry, usually in sports ministry. The Olympic chaplains lead devotions, Bible studies, and worship services from morning to evening as part of the multi-faith chaplaincy programs that share an office in the Olympic Village. Chaplains are not allowed to proselytize while outside of the office, but if an athlete comes to the office, the chaplains can openly talk about Christianity.
"This might be the first time they've ever been to a Christian service of any kind, and you don't know what their preconceived ideas might be of God or Jesus," said Kobylarz, who also said he knows of a handful of athletes who have become Christians at the Olympics in which he has served.
The Detroit native's own Olympic dreams were short-circuited even before he took the ice as an 18-year-old hockey player at the Olympic team tryouts in the summer of 1982.
"I feel I have something to offer, as my life was once performance-based," Kobylarz said. "I had lost my motivation to play, and when I found the Lord, I found a new purpose, a new joy, a new balance."
After a successful freshman season at the University of Michigan, the high-scoring right wing was invited to the National Sports Festival, where the Olympic team is chosen. What should have been a highlight of his athletic career became the most difficult time of his life.
"USA Today had a list of the players who were going to try out. They had big names—guys like Chris Chelios and other future superstars of the NHL," said Kobylarz, who is still athletic and fit at age 46. "I started comparing myself to them. The more I read about the tryouts, the larger all the other players became in my eyes, and the smaller I became in my own eyes."
Kobylarz also experienced burnout from nonstop training, his parents' marriage was unraveling, and he was fighting a not-yet-diagnosed case of mononucleosis. He was not surprised when he did not make the Olympic team after his freshman year of college, but he was deeply disappointed that he did not play up to his ability.