The Opening Ceremonies have just commenced, but the 2020 Tokyo Games already feel weird. The Japanese government made a last-minute decision to bar spectators, and a number of athletes had to drop out after testing positive for COVID-19 or quarantine after being exposed to those who have tested positive.
Like their fellow Olympians, Christian athletes have made sacrifices, worked through mental health crises, and pushed themselves to their physical limits to make it to the Games. But they’ve been able to do so with the conviction of where their ultimate identity rests. Many have also used their platform to share about God’s work in their life and to give back in response to what they’ve achieved. Here’s 14 athletes currently in Tokyo from around the world.
Lucas Lautaro Guzman, Taekwondo (Argentina)
In 2012, Sebastián Crismanich became the first Argentine to win a taekwondo gold medal at the Olympics. Lucas Lautaro Guzman hopes to become the second.
In 2019, he won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Taekwondo Championships in the men's flyweight category. His achievement came just three months after his mother passed away from a brief battle with breast cancer. Though losing her has been hard, Guzman deepened his faith and today says he has much to be thankful for.
Just before the start of the Olympics, Guzman celebrated his 27th birthday in Kazakhstan. In a caption accompanying his “last photo as a 26-year-old,” he wrote, “I don't feel I deserve all that I am experiencing. … I cannot ask God for anything more, because he gives me so much that I am more than complete and full. Regardless of all the external [success] that I am receiving, I must confess that Christ is the best that has ever happened to me. And I don't want to convince them to think the way I think. In the end, what we say is useful as long as there is evidence in our actions and conduct.”
Nicola McDermott, high jump (Australia)
“What would a surrendered life in sport look like?” High jumper Nicola McDermott poses that question in her Instagram bio—and then goes on about living a life seeking to give the query a deserving answer. On the field, McDermott, 24, won a bronze medal at the 2018 Commonwealth games and set a personal record last year after leaving Australia to train in Europe during the pandemic. Off the field, she cofounded Everlasting Crowns, a ministry where she hopes “fellow athletes transformed by Jesus’s perfect love, planted in churches and discipled to be a blessing to every place they are sent.”
“My faith is the reason I have stayed in the sport so long,” she toldThe Guardian earlier this year. “Faith is the confidence in things you haven’t seen, right? Two metres—when I was an eight-year-old, jumping 1.15m—you need a bit of faith to believe in that. I pursued sport so hard until I was 20 that I thought that was what would make me happy—once I was an Olympian, once I reached something, then I’d be happy. I got to a level where I had everything I ever dreamed of, but I was still dissatisfied—I realised I had put my identity into performance and achievement. Faith for me was realising that I am loved regardless of performance—high jumping is simply a way to connect me to God.”
Ítalo Ferreira, Surfing (Brazil)
Surfing made its debut at the Olympics and 2019 world champion Ítalo Ferreira won the men’s first gold medal. The 27-year-old athlete used social media to praise God for the victory, repeating the mantra he had taken with him to Japan: di amén que viene el oro (roughly, say amen and the gold will come.) Ferreira said he prayed these words from his bed, starting at 3am in the morning, asking God to help his dream come true. “And here it is! My name in the history of surf,” he said. Winning the gold required Ferreira to overcome choppy conditions, an incoming storm that forced the surfers to consolidate the competition from two days to one, and a board that snapped within the first minutes of his gold medal round. Overcome with tears, he continued: “I’ve trained much in the last months and God has made my dream come true. I only have to thank God for giving me the opportunity to do what I love.”
From a small town northeastern Brazil, Ferreira won his first surfing competition two months after his father, a man who purchased fish from fisherman and resold them to restaurants, first bought his son a board. As Ferreira quickly ascended into world of elite surfing, he earned enough money to buy his parents a house on the beach. "The ocean holds a lot of weight in my life. Starting with my dad, who made a living off the sea, selling fish, and I do it by surfing,” said Ferreira in a video spot encouraging ocean conversation. “A future without the ocean? It would be terrible. I think the ocean is God’s special gift to the people.”
Charles Fernandez, Modern Pentathlon (Guatemala)
When Charles Fernandez was seven years old, his family moved from the United States to his father’s home country of Guatemala to serve as missionaries. Years before his son was born, Carlos Fernandez competed in the pentathlon, which consists of fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, and a combined pistol-shooting and cross-country-running event. Carlos and his wife, Esther now run a ministry in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala, that serves the surrounding Mayan community.
After competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio at age 20, where he placed 15th, Fernandez won the Pan American Games in 2019. “Coming back to my country with two medals, it is definitely a huge blessing to be able to share these moments with these people who fight every day to get out of poverty and to give them the hope of Christ,” said Fernandez, after winning two regional events in 2018. “That is why I do what I do, to be a light of Christ unto the nations in this sport.” Throughout the pandemic, Fernandez, who also considers himself a social worker, has been traveling between the US and Guatemala to try and help his fellow citizens. “My aim as an athlete is to bring hope to them, showing them that anything is possible when you work hard,” he said in an interview last year. “The two ways I support the country (socially and through sport) are different, but thank God they fit together in a very special way. This is the reason and motivation for what I do at the Olympics."
Jonatan Christie, Badminton (Indonesia)
No country has a larger Muslim population than Indonesia. But one of their most beloved athletes is a 23-year-old badminton player who loves Jesus. Here’s one reason why: In 2018, five years after Christie won his senior title at age 15, he promised God that if he made the badminton men’s singles’ final at the 2018 Asian Games, he would give half his bonus away. Just weeks earlier, an earthquake struck the island of Lombok, killing more than 500 people and displacing close to half a million.
Christie won the Asian Games—and then paid to rebuild one school and two mosques, hoping this gesture would help bring his country together. Despite these accolades, Christie remains humble. “I am not a perfect man. I am far from being a good person. I think I am not someone who can be a good role model because I myself still struggle with many sins,” Christie, who is currently ranked seventh in the world, said earlier this year. “I learned a lot from the people around me about how to go through it together with God. My spirituality life doesn't always run smoothly. To follow Jesus doesn't always mean that everything will be okay. I still have to face many trials. But for me, whatever trials God allows us to face, we must continue to learn and grow. If we can get through a problem with God, there must be a new door that opens, so we can be more mature in dealing with our problems.”
Raelin D'Alie, 3x3 Basketball (Italy)
Raelin D’Alie is five-foot-four and grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. But over the next couple of weeks, she’ll be representing Italy as a member of their three-on-three women’s basketball team. The 33 year old, who has represented Italy for the past 10 years, made the basket that qualified Italy in the Olympics after going 0-9 to start the game.
Last year, D’Alie’s season with Virtus Bologna was shut down because of the pandemic. “I’m a person of faith, so how I respond to suffering is I pray and I sing to God. I told my roommate, ‘This is a real hard hit for Italy.’ And we prayed that God would use this moment to also give them one of the greatest joys that they ever experienced in a short amount of time,” she toldThe Journal Times. “I know that Italy is so proud that we’re going to the Olympics and I really hope to do something incredibly special for Italy, especially because of the suffering they’ve gone through for the last 18 months.”
Yohan Blake, Sprinter (Jamaica)
Usain Bolt won’t be around this Olympics, but his longtime training partner, Yohan Blake, will be competing. In 2012, Blake finished behind Bolt in the 100m and 200m sprints and together, along with two other Jamaican teammates, took gold in the 4x100m relay. In 2016, they repeated their success. Beyond his athletic goals, Blake aspires to help people. According to his website bio, he “sees himself as being placed on earth by God to help and care for the sheep like a loving shepherd. That mindset has made him into the kind, self-sacrificing individual he is today.”
Blake, whose social media presence alternates Bible verses and plugs for his new website, will compete in the men’s 100m.
Odunayo Adekuoroye, Wrestling (Nigeria)
Only one Nigerian female athlete has ever won a gold medal at the Olympics. Wrestler Odunayo Adekuoroye believes she is “definitely” going to be the second. “I believe by the special grace of God; it’s my time to shine,” she said earlier this month. “So, I will definitely bring gold to Nigeria by His grace.”
Adekuoroye grew up in southwest Nigeria and, as a child, hawked goods on the street. Sprinting was her first interest before her desire to travel encouraged her to start wrestling, a decision her parents initially did not support. As a teenager, Adekuoroye hid her hobby from them. When they found out she had been wrestling behind their backs, they only relented when her coach offered to pay her school fees and have her live with him. Her career has transformed her family’s financial situation; Adekuoroye was able to purchase a car for her father and opened a shop for her mother. “Wrestling gave me fame, took me out of poverty and gave me a name. We didn’t have anything at home, but when I started making money, at least now we are not rich, but we are comfortable,” she said last year.
Adekuoroye is a two-time Commonwealth Games winner and reached the quarterfinals in Rio. “As a Christian, I believe in the principle of work and pray as directed in the Bible,” she said before a competition in 2015. “I and my coaches are working, so it’s now left for the Nigeria people to pray for the team.”
Nick Willis, distance runner (New Zealand)
After four Olympics, Kiwi Nick Willis is back for his fifth. “This is not a boast or brag, but it simply amazes me that I can do a two hour run and finish feeling like it was a 10minute jog. To be this fit is a unique experience few in the world can comprehend,” he tweeted in 2019. Sometimes I want to retire, but God has given me this gift, so I’ll run and run!”
Run he has. Willis has twice won Olympic medals for New Zealand in the 1,500m; he won the silver medal in 2008 in Beijing and a bronze in 2016 in Rio. Despite representing a country in Oceania, Willis lives on the other side of the globe after moving to attend University of Michigan. It was there that, at the encouragement of his brother, he got involved with Athletes in Action and reconnected with his childhood faith, an act that helped him cope with the grief he still felt at losing his mother at a young age. “Something started tapping on my heart, telling me that my mom was watching my life from heaven. I tried to fight it off with more alcohol, and late nights, but the knocking on my heart became louder and louder,” he wrote. “This became impossible to deny. I knew God was chasing me, and had been for many years. I decided to finally stop running from Him.”
Instead, Willis is running today, almost as a way to worship, as a conversation he recounted in a tweet several years suggested:
“Dad, why do you always run?”
“Because I’m thanking God for giving me fast legs”
“Do you feel his power in your legs when you run?”
“I guess I do, yes!”
Wayde Van Niekerk, Sprints (South Africa)
When Wayde Van Niekerk won the 400m in Rio and shattered Michael Johnson’s longtime record, he immediately opened his mouth and praised God. “I have dreamed of this since I was a little kid,” he told BBC. “The only thing I can do now is to give God praise. I went on my knees each and every day and I told the Lord to take care of me and look after me every step I asked the Lord to carry me through the race and I am really just blessed for this opportunity."
The following year, Van Niekerk thanked God again after he won a gold medal at the IAAF World Championships. But the South African runner has barely competed since, after he tore his ACL at a charity rugby event. Yet his faith seemingly hasn’t wavered. Bible verses adorn his Twitter and Instagram posts. “Be courageous in the Lord,” he tweeted in an announcement for a recent race. In another: “The Lord's faithful love steadies me.”
An Baul, Judo (South Korea)
Before he went into his gold medal match at Rio, Baul An prayed. “I didn't pray for An Baul to win the gold medal. I just prayed that I could do my best and come back without regrets. ... Even if it's not the Olympics, I tend to pray like this before every game.” A 2015 world champion and 2016 medal favorite, An was upset by Italy’s Fabio Basile, ranked 29th in his weight class.
Want to pray for the South Korean judoka this Olympics? Here are his prayer requests: “I hope to finish the match well with all the support of others. Please pray for our safety and health during the Olympics, so that we can do well as much as we practiced, with no regrets.”
Latisha (Yung-jan) Chan, Tennis (Taiwan)
Latisha Chan and her older sister Chan Hao-ching will be playing for the second straight Olympics as they attempt to get past the quarterfinals, where they lost in 2016. Currently ranked 21st in the world, the sisters were eliminated in the quarterfinals in both the French Open and Wimbledon earlier this summer. As a women’s and mixed-doubles player, Chan has won nearly three dozen tournaments, including the 2017 US Open alongside Martina Hingis and the 2018 French Open, the 2019 French Open, and the 2019 Wimbledon Championships with Ivan Dodig.
In 2015, Latisha, her sister, and her mother were all baptized together. To cope with pressure, Chan has often found a quiet corner, turned on music, and prayed. “Most of my prayers to our heavenly Father are not about winning the matches, but about asking for guidance,” she said in 2017. “I pray that we would not get injured, and that we would have a good game. Also, that regardless of the eventual result, we would be able to accept it and learn a humble attitude through the process."
Cherelle Thompson, Swimming (Trinidad & Tobago)
Cherelle Thompson wanted to make the Olympic team last year. But as her fellow athletes know so well, things don’t always go as planned. Unable to enter a pool during the first months of the pandemic last year, Thompson recognized her need to cling to her faith during this time. “I am acknowledging my limited view on life and my future, and trusting it to Him because of His sovereignty and track record in taking good care of His own,” she wrote. “As much as I like to be in control of all the details and know what each step is going to look like, I am trusting God by surrendering my future to Him. I am not giving up hope (for all that I want to accomplish), but I am transferring authority over the parts of my life that I thought I had figured out.”
Now back in the pool, the 29-year-old qualified for the Olympics the last week of June and will compete in the women’s 50-meter freestyle.
Joshua Cheptegei, distance running (Uganda)
In 2017, Joshua Cheptegei praised the accomplishments of decorated fellow distance runner Mo Farah on Twitter. Then a fan replied, “Joshua, Now it's your turn to champion.” Cheptegei accepted the affirmation. “Just watch the space, GOD has so many Golds for me in store, HE will strengthen me, I am the Lord's worrior,” he tweeted.
In 2020, Cheptegei set the world record for the 5,000m and 10,000m races. Despite this success, the Ugandan runner is deeply acquainted with failure.
When Uganda hosted the 2017 World Cross Country Championships in 2017, Cheptegei was the host nation’s best shot at gold. Just four months before he posted that tweet, Cheptegei was on the verge of winning the senior 10km race. But on his final lap, in front of the home crowd, he slowed to the point where he took 30th place, a loss that left him so depressed he tried to avoid people for weeks after. Today, he uses his voice to advocate against female genital mutilation.
Simone Manuel, Swimming (USA)
In 2016, Simone Manuel took home four Olympic medals, two gold and two silver: She won gold in the 100m freestyle and the 4x100m medley relay. She took silver as part of the 4×100m freestyle relay and in the 50m freestyle event. The 24-year-old co-captain of the swim team will return to the Olympics this year, but struggled making it to the games.
For months, Manuel was afflicted by overtraining, a condition that left mentally depressed and her body exhausted, and compelled her doctor to order her to halt working out for three weeks in March of this year. At the Olympic trials in June, she failed to qualify for the finals of the 100m freestyle. But she is now in Tokyo after qualifying in the 50m freestyle. “I just had to take a moment to praise God,” Manuel told NBC Sports after winning that race and securing her spot in Tokyo. “I mean, this year has been difficult, especially the last couple months, but before I dove in, I felt like it was my moment, and I’m so thankful for the blessings that God has given me.”
With translation assistance from Giselle Seidel, Maria Fennita, and Juhyun Park.