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Christian Olympians

Thanks to the Winter Olympics, every four years I rediscover what, for two weeks, are my favorite sports: downhill skiing, curling, snowboard cross, and short track speed skating.

While watching a women’s short track event last week in which Chinese athletes were competing, I was interested, and a little surprised to see a shot of their coach, Li Yan. I was surprised because I thought that she had retired.

Following the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, where she led her team to two gold medals, three silver medals, and one bronze medal, she was considered one of the most successful short track coaches in the world.

She is also a Christian.

In 2014, in our Chinese Church Voices column, we posted a translated article from Christian Times about her.

Although she is the world's most successful coach, Li Yan is also an ordinary wife and mother who wants to help her daughter grow up healthy. "Glory is temporary," she say, "but it takes a lifetime to grow. I do not want to be absent while my daughter grows up. As a devout Christian, Li Yan also speaks of the importance of the Bible in her life. The past four years have not been easy for Li Yan. From winning four gold medals at the Vancouver Olympic Games to the internal turmoil on the team, to Wang Meng's strong comeback and loss, she has experienced many ups and downs. But in all of these situations, her faith sustained her. In an interview with the magazine "Express," she repeatedly shared how the Bible verse "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" (ESV) has helped her deal with the pressure. "This sentence helped me slay the demons of my heart."

You can read the entire post here.

In 2004, we published an interview with a Chinese athlete who spoke about being a Christian within the Chinese sports system:

Ms. Li is a Christian, and I asked her about Christians within the professional sports world in China. She told me that although there are not many, the number of Christian athletes has been growing in recent years. Where, or how, does a professional athlete have the opportunity to hear the gospel, I wondered. She told me that, like other young Christians in China, many learn about the gospel from Christian parents or grandparents.  She also told me of a situation in which a foreigner was brought in to coach a team, and that foreigner was a Christian who was active in teaching his players about Christianity. She told me that while being a Christian professional athlete was difficult ten years ago, today things are much more relaxed, and athletes can be open about their faith.

According to Ms. Li., reaching professional athletes with the gospel is not easy. A major factor is the transitory nature of their lifestyle. Athletes are constantly on the move and have little time or opportunity to build lasting and stable relationships or connect with local fellowships. She also believes that the gospel is best preached from within, by Christian athletes living out their faith, being good examples and telling their fellow athletes about Christ. “It’s very difficult for those from the outside to be involved in evangelism with professional athletes.”

Finally, I asked Ms. Li how best to pray for Chinese professional athletes.  She again reminded me of how difficult life is for an athlete and that many are depressed and unhappy. (She used the Chinese word, kumen, meaning “depressed, dejected.”)

As China prepares to host the next Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022, let’s keep our brothers and sisters who are preparing to compete in our prayers.

Image credit: Av Pawel Maryanov - Flickr: IMG_6025, CC BY 2.0, Lenke
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Senior Vice President of ChinaSource. She is the editor of ZGBriefs and Chinese Church Voices, as well as a regular contributor to ChinaSource publications. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and most recently,... View Full Bio

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