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An Olympic Chaplain

The head Christian chaplain at the Vancouver Olympics draws on years of playing professional hockey in U.S. and Sweden.

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.

"I struggled with my motivation that year, and I realized that my identity was completely based on my performance as an athlete," Kobylarz said. "I couldn't understand why, because hockey had been everything to me up to that point."

Two friends who were also athletes at the university invited him to a Bible study sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Kobylarz did not want to be preached to, but he went because other athletes—people he looked up to—attended.

"When I opened the Bible and really read it for the very first time, I realized that Christ was the puzzle piece missing in my life," Kobylarz said. "When I started performing first and foremost for God, the pressure that I felt from other people close to me, from the talent scouts, from my college coaches, and the pressure I put on myself disintegrated."

During his senior year, Kobylarz was scouted by the NHL, signed a contract with the New Jersey Devils after graduation, and played on the farm team for two seasons. Later, he was invited to travel to Europe for three weeks as a member of a Christian hockey team, and was recruited by a coach to play professional hockey in Sweden.

Kobylarz said the church and sports seemed traditionally at odds, since members of the church often opposed the violence in athletics and playing games on Sunday.

"The church in Sweden forced people to choose between church and sports," Kobylarz said. "If you chose church, you had to give up your sport. That was the history of the church up to that point."

Kobylarz eventually founded the country's first national church-based sports ministry, called Sport for Life. The program serves 2,000 to 3,000 athletes every year, teaching the Christian faith while offering athletic training.

As Sport for Life's reputation grew in Sweden, Kobylarz was asked to serve as a chaplain at major sporting events like the Hockey World Championships, World Cup events, University Games, and the Olympics.

Churches in the host city and the International Sports Coalition, a sports ministry network, develop the Olympics' Christian chaplaincy program, which shares an office with programs representing other faiths. Kobylarz, who is the winter sports representative for the International Sports Coalition, is serving as a lead chaplain in Vancouver, along with David Wells, general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and the local representative who is handling logistics. In Vancouver, Kobylarz is overseeing 22 other Protestant chaplains, including a former World Cup snowboarder, a former Olympic cross country skier, the former coach for a national cross country team, a former Olympic wrestler, and another former NHL player.

While the Olympics often take place in countries where a religion other than Christianity is dominant, Kobylarz said the location does not affect the chaplaincy program. The host country might make it more difficult to get a chaplaincy program approved in the first place, but once the program is approved and the games are underway, the program is basically the same.

"You're always going to have athletes from all countries and all religions," Kobylarz said. "You have to learn to be prepared for questions before you receive them, and you have to be able to take their different backgrounds and cultures, and even their different sports, into consideration."

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on the Olympics include:
Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games | New scholarship on the ancient Olympics reminds Christians why Emperor Theodosius outlawed the event so many centuries ago. (Christian History, August 8, 2008)
Heavy Medal | At the Olympics, if you don't medal, you certainly must be a loser. (February 23, 2006)
Opening Ceremony Blues | The Olympics is symbolic, but not of world peace. (February 16, 2006)

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