Hey reporters: Faith plays a key role for Simone Manuel, Simone Biles and many others

So many faith-driven Olympics stories, so little time to discuss them. But, yes, doing a whole "Crossroads" podcast on the topic does help.

For starters, this morning we have yet another Philippians 4:13 sighting. It's right there at the top of the Twitter feed for Simone Manuel, whose gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle has to be listed among the most stunning upsets at Rio 2016. She defeated a pool packed with world-class stars.

So do you remember this particular New Testament verse and it's role in sports? That's the verse that proclaims: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

Think Steph Curry and his sneakers. That's the ticket. Remember the news story that suggested that Curry put "I can do all things" on his shoes as a sign of confidence and even ego?

Clearly, Simone Manuel is not hiding her Christian faith. But is her faith relevant, in terms of news coverage of her big win? If you look at the news today, it's clear that -- as an African-American heroine in the pool -- her views on #blacklivesmatter are sure to be explored. Consider this passage in The Washington Post coverage:

Those in the arena knew what that meant, because the scoreboard showed 52.70 seconds, an Olympic record, for both Manuel and Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak — a dead heat that meant both took gold.
Manuel, though, shared it with a wider audience -- all young African-American girls. None had ever before won an individual Olympic medal in swimming. After preparation that took a lifetime, Manuel thus became a role model in less than a minute.

And later in the report:

“It means a lot, especially with what’s going on in the world today, just with some of the issues with police brutality,” Manuel said. “This win kind of helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world. I went out there and swam as fast as I could, and my color just comes with the territory.”

Now, I think this is high relevant, newsworthy material. That isn't my question.

The question I am asking -- the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I explored this week -- is this: "When does an athlete's faith become relevant in mainstream coverage?" Why do so many reporters struggle to include valid faith angles in their news stories and longer features?

I don't think reporters have to note every time someone gives thanks to God right after a big win. Clearly, some reporters have grown tired of heartland heroes playing the Jesus card in those circumstances.

However, what about stories that focus on big questions about what makes a particular athlete tick, as a person and as a performer?

That's the question I discussed in posts earlier this week when some major mainstream newsrooms missed highly relevant faith angles in the lives of uber-superstar Michael Phelps as well as the silver-winning diving team of David Boudia and Steele Johnson. I asked a familiar question: If these athletes talk about faith issues when telling their own stories about depression, alcohol, life-threatening injuries, etc., why can't mainstream reporters include that material in stories about those very issues?

Or how about that rosary in the equipment bag of gymnastics superstar Simone "face of the Rio games" Biles? What is it that drives her? Well, that appears to be a Catholic media story:

To answer that question, Us magazine recently asked Biles to empty her gymnastics bag in hopes of finding a secret formula to her success. While most of the contents of her bag were no surprise, the reporter noticed a white rosary that fell out. Biles explained, “My mom, Nellie, got me a rosary at church. I don’t use it to pray before a competition. I’ll just pray normally to myself, but I have it there in case.”

Yes, Religion News Service caught the rosary and Mass angle in the Biles story, as well. The bigger issue is why the Washington Post and the New York Times failed to do so. However, I must admit that I had no idea -- until reading that Gray Lady report -- that Biles was getting just as much attention in Belize as a key LGBTQ win in the courts there.

Over at USA Today, we learn a lot about the lucky wooden ring on the finger of Aimee Boorman, who coaches Biles, but not about the rosary and the athlete's prayer life. It's a matter of priorities, I guess.

Let me stress, once again: I am not saying that reporters have to jump to attention every time an athlete praises God. I am saying that, when writing profiles about the hearts and souls of these performers, stories about the struggles and pains that come with success and failure, it helps to ask a few faith questions. More often than not, it seems, there is crucial material there.

Thus, let's end with a salute to RNS for it's report dedicated to an issue linked to all of this. The headline: "Faith at the Olympics: Does it give an athlete an edge?" (RNS also joined Catholic news services in covering the faith of multi-gold medalist Katie Ledecky, another star in the Rio pool.)

Many of the key players are here, such as Boudia and Johnson (praising Jesus after winning silver) and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Here is a key passage:

In terms of religion, the 554 athletes of Team USA are a cross-section of the nation they represent, with Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Buddhist and Muslim members, among others. It also has members who -- like 23 percent of Americans -- are unaffiliated with any religion and who, perhaps like 7 percent of Americans, say they do not believe in God or are agnostic.
But Boudia’s and Johnson’s remarks raise a question: Does religious faith give an athlete any sort of edge?
It depends on whom you ask -- and how you ask. Athletes commonly speak of the support faith gives them; tennis player Serena Williams, golfer Bubba Watson, quarterback Tim Tebow, pitcher Curt Schilling, retired NFL coach Tony Dungy and the late Muhammad Ali are only the best-known among them.
But athletes define that support in different ways. For some, it is the feeling of not being alone on the field of competition. For others, it is a sense that the outcome -- whatever it is -- is for the best.

Keep watching and reading, and let us know what you see and hear -- including the God-shaped holes in most of the stories on NBC and elsewhere.

Enjoy the podcast.

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