I thought I saw them when I walked on the plane, but I could not be sure. White jackets with “Team USA” printed on the back seemed pretty indicative, but it wasn’t until the flight attendant announced over the loud speaker that we had two Team USA hockey team members on our flight that it was confirmed. The “realness” of my Olympic journey finally set in.
I felt prepared. I had done my research through interviews, the majority of which I conducted on a cold weekend in early January. I interviewed seven former Olympic ministers in the course of three days, and afterwards felt confident I could write a handbook on how to do Olympic Ministry.
Saturday afternoon on that cold January weekend, I sat down for a meal in a southern home outside of Atlanta with three women, or should I say, legends in Olympic Ministry. They all had a sense of confidence about them, as though they saw the world for what it was and were not intimidated by it. Sitting around a rectangular wooden table, laughter penetrated almost every sentence, as the women relived stories of travel mishaps, falling in love, and ministry miracles. Over chicken strips, chips and vegetables, they relived their earlier years when they were tasked with working at the biggest event in the world.
After lunch, we moved into the living room, where I set up the camera. I’d experienced this before, but as soon as the camera is points at the subjects with its judgmental gaze, all laughter in the room dies. Everyone becomes oddly formal in their word choice, sits up straighter, and are very conscious of every movement they make.
To break the ice, I asked the first question, “What is your name, and which Olympics have you worked.” They looked around to see who would start, but Debbie jumped in saying, “I’m Debbie Reasoner, and I’ve worked a lot of Olympics.”
That was hardly an understatement. Debbie has worked 12 Olympics, and because of this her friends gave her the affectionate nickname, Ms. Olympics. She is known for her extensive knowledge of pin trading, an Olympic tradition. Debbie knows pin trading, and imparted some of her wisdom, and a gallon-sized bag filled with pins from prior Olympics to me before the interview. The bag was to start my collection, and the wisdom was so I wouldn’t get ripped off when I arrived.
Debbie is also known for dressing up in full character costumes. We’re talking full kangaroo costume at the Australia Games, and Frosty the Snowman at winter games. She explained that these were ministry strategies, making yourself approachable in order to share yourself with others. “It’s drawing a crowd and capturing attention … People are hungry for the gospel, they just need a bridge to get to it.”
As the conversation continued, an amusing phrase kept getting thrown around. Whenever referencing the 1998 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, G.A., everyone would say “Linda’s Olympics.” Linda Johnson, the architect behind the weekend of interviews,* was the director of Olympic ministry for the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1996, the centennial year of the modern Olympic games. A four year operation, Linda organized a couple thousand volunteers to serve in and around the city during the month long Games. Linda admitted it was a very stressful job, and although she enjoyed it then, she would not want to do it again.
Beth Ann Williams, our third interviewee and gracious host, worked under Linda in Atlanta. 2 years later, a call went out looking for someone to help direct Olympic ministries in Salt Lake City. As Beth Ann and Linda drove down the highway one afternoon, Beth Ann told her that she felt called to go to the Games again. A few short weeks later, she packed up and moved to Salt Lake City two years before the event to teach churches how to welcome the world to their city.
Talking with the three side-by-side was a fascinating contrast on the spectrum of people who work Olympic Ministry. Linda spoke to the logistical side of the ministry, whereas Debbie shared how it was her chance to do solo ministry. Beth Ann had experienced both, working Salt Lake, and then attending the London games with Debbie for a time of solo ministry. Each perspective was widely different, but all accurate depictions of what the ministry can look like, depending on whether the Games are at home or abroad.
All of these perspectives are about to become my reality in a few short hours when I arrive in Gangneung, the costal city where indoor events like figure skating and hockey are held. I’ve met up with my travel partner, Joe Chen, a USC graduate and United Nations employee, and we will arrive at the Games on Friday morning. The high temperature is below freezing every day, so fingers crossed my southern blood does not freeze.
Sincerest thanks for all who have so graciously supported me in this project. “God at the Games” would not be possible without generous support from those who believe in the project, and believe in me. If you didn’t get a chance to donate but still would like to, you can do so here or on the donate tab.
Also a big thanks to those who sat for an interview with me; David Buckner, Mandi Buckner, Bill Black, Toni Shumaker, Beth Ann Williams, Linda Johnson, Debbie Reasoner, Marty Youngblood and Myungsu No. You are the real heros.
Annyung! (“Bye” in Korean)
*- A special thanks to Linda Johnson for all she did and has done to help me in this project. You inspired and motivated me to do this project, and I can’t thank you enough.
To Good to Leave Out
When I first met Debbie Wholer Reasoner, it was that Saturday at Beth Ann’s house.
As she came over to embrace me, her first words were,
“So you’re Madeline. I hear you walk on water!”
Taken aback, I respond simply “I’ve heard the same thing about you!”
She laughed a delighted laugh and said, “Then lets walk together.”