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Vatican Athletes Hope to One Day Compete at Paralympic Games

Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein, an amputee swimmer who is aiming to be part of a Refugee Paralympic Team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, adjusts his goggles during his training at the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece, April 26, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters)

By Inés San Martín

ROME (Crux) — Just as he did when the Olympic games began last July, Pope Francis on Wednesday referred to the opening of the Paralympic games the day before.

“Yesterday, the Paralympics kicked off in Tokyo,” Pope Francis said at the end of his general audience. “I send my greetings to the athletes and I thank them because they offer everyone a testimony of hope and courage. They, in fact, show how sporting commitment helps to overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties.”

The pontiff’s words had a particular significance for a “small yet loud” group of Paralympic athletes who were present in the Paul VI Hall when the Holy Father delivered his remarks.

Among those present were thirteen-year-old Sara Vargetto and Gianluca Palazzi, two members of the Vatican’s Official Paralympic Team, who spoke with the pope about what they do, including several projects carried out in collaboration with the International and the Italian Paralympic Committees. They also presented Pope Francis with a shirt of the Athletica Vaticana — the Vatican’s official sports team — that portrays several people running, including a person in a wheelchair.

Giampaolo Mattei, the director of Athletica Vaticana, said that it was “very fitting” that they were present when the pope referred to the ongoing games.

“This team, that is very small but full of enthusiasm, was there, and it was incredibly significant, because our hope is to promote a change of mentality regarding disability: it’s not a disgrace, and it can perhaps be a resource,” he told Crux on the phone after the audience. “Seeing the Paralympic athletes, great champions, or the kids who with a prosthesis or a wheelchair also compete, can be of great inspiration for the child in a wheelchair who is shut in at home because he is embarrassed, or in a hospital bed. Perhaps, upon seeing the athletes, the go ‘if they can, so can I’.”

Athletica Vaticana falls under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and was launched in 2019. It represents a new milestone towards the creation of a recognized Vatican sports delegation for international sporting competitions.

Mattei is convinced that the “great medal” for the members of the Vatican’s Paralympic team comes from being witnesses to the fact that “despite the challenges, great feats can be achieved in the realm of sports, then the same applies to all aspects of life, including school and work.”

“Sport, because of its ability to communicate and inspire, can be an enormous vehicle for true inclusion,” he said. “And we at Athletica Vaticana, with its small Paralympic team, are working for this cultural change.”

Though yet unable to actually compete at the Paralympics Games, the Vatican’s team does train “seriously,” he said, and he doesn’t rule out the possibility that, with time, they might actually have athletes who can be up to the challenge. In the meantime, they do participate in competitions matching their level.

“Pope Francis’s Paralympic Team is official,” Mattei noted. “It’s affiliated with national and international federations. And this is really fantastic and a great source of inspiration.”

“What we do, yes, is small, but beautiful,” he said.

Athletica Vaticana includes around 100 people who are either citizens, employees or children of an employee of the Vatican.

Despite not being able to participate in the Games, it’s been able to have an imprint on the Tokyo Olympics by helping provide a translation for the word that was added to the motto this year by the International Olympics Committee.

“For over 100 years, it was citius, altius, fortius, meaning faster, higher, stronger,” Mattei said. Yet this year, they added to word “communiter,” that can be translated from Latin to English as “together.” The Vatican employee noted that Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, together with the Council for Culture, helped coin the correct translation.

The fact that the slogan for Athletica Vaticana is “running together” is “not really a coincidence” Mattei said.

The original motto, introduced in the Paris Olympics of 1924, was coined by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, widely considered as the “father” of the modern Olympic Games, who at the time acknowledged he’d borrowed it from athletics enthusiast Father Henri Martin Dideon, a Dominican.

The Belvedere “Olympics”

Speaking with Crux, Mattei also referred to the “global” athletic championships that were held in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard between 1905 and 1908, that included sporting competitions organized by Roman parishes in the presence of Pope Pius X.

“In 1908, there were amputee athletes, several who were deaf and even a team of blind high jumpers,” Mattei wrote earlier this month in a cover story of the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. These, he argued, were in many ways the precursors of the Paralympic Games, that would come to be almost four decades later, inspired by the many athletes who’d lost limbs during World War II.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma