Going for Gold – Chaplain to the Olympics - 96five Family Radio

Going for Gold – Chaplain to the Olympics

Serving as a chaplain at the Sydney 2000 Olympics & Paralympics was amazing. Almost every day I had a “divine appointment” with an athlete or volunteer.

By 96five Wednesday 10 May 2017LifeReading Time: 6 minutes

By: David Smethurst

As part of Chappy Week celebrations throughout QLD we’re shining a spotlight and highlighting the roles of Chaplains who work across various industries. David Smethurst has served as Chaplain to the Olympics for almost two decades and he shares his story with us.

Sporting Roots

I had the privilege of growing up in an amazing international sporting family, in South Africa. My dad, Bernie, the oldest of the Smethurst brothers, was a national light heavyweight boxing champion. The next brother, Cyril, was a wrestler. The next brother Norman played left wing on the South African national (Springbok) soccer team. The youngest brother, Horace, captained the Springbok soccer team.

Their sister, my Aunty Pat, captained the Springbok hockey team in 1954. She married a Springbok rugby captain, Felix du Plessis, who captained the Springbok rugby team that in 1949 won all the test matches against the New Zealand team that toured South Africa.

So, I grew up in this atmosphere of sporting excellence, being encouraged to do my best but always encouraged to enjoy the sports I was involved in.

My dad and a friend, started a boys’ boxing club, to get troubled young boys off the streets and teach them discipline, respect and self-defense through exercise, athletics and boxing. I was about six when I started and made many friends with the other boys. Often, I would meet them in later years in opposing rugby matches where we certainly learned to respect each other’s toughness on the rugby field. It was boxing with the Zulu kids that toughened me and taught me how to run very fast. A big plus in later years in competitive sport.

The Road to the Olympics

In 1999 I was ministering at a church in Canberra. One morning the pastor was opening his mail and out of one of the envelopes came a piece of paper with the heading “Application for Sports Chaplaincy”. He pushed it over the desk to me, saying, “You might be interested in this.” On this page, there were a few questions to answer, and space to put your details, which I did and mailed it off to an address in Sydney.

A few months later I received a call from the Chaplain General of the Sydney Olympics/Paralympics”. He told me he had received a couple of thousand applications for chaplaincy at the Games, and could only choose 70 chaplains. He was putting together a final shortlist, and I wasn’t on it. I wondered why he called me in the first place. He then proceeded to ask a few questions like – “Have you played sport at a high level?” To which I said, “A reasonably high level – where I trained with the South African Olympic swimming team for a season; I played provincial water polo: and I threw the discus at some junior South African events.”

He then asked me and I ever counselled sporting personalities, which I answered, “Yes – especially my family members as well as sports people I’d met at university and in the workplace.” He also asked, did I have any counselling qualifications. I said yes, I had a Bachelor Degree in Counselling.

He then called me a few months later and said that I should block off the months of September and October 2000 because I’d be selected as a chaplain for the Olympics and Paralympics.

Led by God amongst the Athletes

Serving as a chaplain at the Sydney 2000 Olympics & Paralympics was an amazing experience. Almost every day I had a “divine appointment” with an athlete or a volunteer. There were happy moments like when I literally “bumped” into some of the Ukrainian wrestling team. I instinctively apologised to them in Russian. They asked what I was doing at the Olympics when I told them, they asked me to pray for them. It must’ve looked funny to a passer-by seeing 7 big athletes and a chaplain in an eight-man “rugby scrum” having a word of prayer. This was to stand me in good stead at two further Olympics where those same wrestlers remembered me and sought my help for their colleagues.

One day I received an urgent call at the chaplaincy office from an official doctor asking for a chaplain who could speak an African language to come immediately to the medical centre. I found an African boxer very upset and disillusioned because he had been disqualified for not understanding a change in boxing rules. I addressed him respectfully in Zulu, and the man immediately opened up, and began to respond to the counselling. He changed his mind about ending his life, and he went home still a hero because he had at least qualified for the Olympics, and did exceptionally well in the next Olympics.

Olympic Village 2012 Dave Smethurst Chaplain

Dave Smethurst in front of the 2012 Olympic Village

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, my portfolio changed slightly to being a personal volunteer-helper – and counsellor when needed. A daily task I really enjoyed was helping the security guards at the athletes’ entrance to the Olympic village – where hundreds came in from events or training at any one time. I had wonderful opportunities to meet athletes and talk to them in some of their own languages.

I was not planning to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics because the Chinese authorities specified they were not accepting foreign chaplains in the Olympic village – only Chinese chaplains. The downside of this was that Chinese counsellors were not fully competent to counsel athletes from other cultures. An amazing miracle occurred when I received an email from an organisation of which the great Carl Lewis was a director, asking me to head up their “external chaplaincy” outside the Olympic village. The Chinese Chaplain General was a very wise man who arranged for many foreign athletes to meet our external chaplains outside of the Olympic village. We could counsel athletes very freely, normally in public eating places.

A Master Season

I still personally participate in sport. At the Athens Olympics as the games were winding down I noticed a lot of very elderly people coming into the Olympic village to use the Olympic facilities. I found out they were athletes from the World Masters Games. I heard some of them in a coffee shop, commiserating with each other regarding athletes that had passed away just previously. I thought I would offer four male athletes my services as a grief counsellor. I was very surprised when they said to me, “Thanks Padre but we don’t need your counselling. Just butt out.” So, I picked up my coffee, moved to another table, and sat down sulking. I heard God’s little voice in my thoughts saying, “Pull yourself together. If you want to win them – join them.” I realised what God was intimating – get back into training and swim in the World Masters Games.

It took me many months to get my swimming stamina back, but eventually I registered for the 2009 World Masters Games in Sydney. I wasn’t very well prepared for these games and just before, I injured my lower back which slowed me down. However, it was a wonderful experience swimming against past Olympians (from the 1960 and 1964 Games). It was a great opportunity talking to the competitors and being able to counsel them, and lead many to a faith in Christ, and they were very willing to listen.

I was far better prepared for the 2013 World Masters Games in Turin, Italy. I almost got a bronze medal in in the 200m freestyle. However, a Canadian fellow in another heat, beat me by half a second. I did get “sweet revenge” the next day when I counselled him in the changing room, on marriage issues, and had the privilege of leading him back to his faith in Christ.

David Smethurst works alongside his wife Margurita in counselling and pastoral ministry both in Australia and overseas. He has served for many years in the Australian Christian Churches and David and Margurita are passionate about family and faith. To find out more visit their website at Smethurst Ministries (www.smethurstministries.org)