The Vatican launches athletics team and targets the Olympics

Swiss Guards, priests, nuns, pharmacists and a 62-year-old professor among first members

The Vatican has launched an athletics team with the aim of competing in international competitions – including the Olympics – as part of an agreement signed with the Italian Olympic Committee (Coni).

About 60 Holy See runners – Swiss Guards, priests, nuns, pharmacists and a 62-year-old professor who works in the Vatican’s Apostolic Library – are the first accredited members of Vatican Athletics. It is the latest iteration of the Holy See’s longstanding promotion of sport as an instrument of dialogue, peace and solidarity.

Because of the agreement with Coni, the team are now a part of the Italian track association and are looking to join the International Association of Athletics Federations. It is hoping to compete in international competitions, including the Games of the Small States of Europe – open to states with fewer than one million people – and the Mediterranean Games. The Vatican aims to sign similar agreements with the Italian Paralympic committee.

“The dream that we have often had is to see the Holy See flag among the delegations at the opening of the Olympic Games,” said Monsignor Melchor Jose Sánchez de Toca y Alameda, the team president and the head of the Vatican’s sports department in the culture ministry. He said that was neither a short-term nor medium-term goal, and that for now the Vatican was looking to participate in competitions that had cultural or symbolic value. “We might even podium,” he added.

Team members wearing navy track suits bearing the Holy See's crossed keys seal attended the launch. Vatican pharmacist-runner Michela Ciprietti said the aim of the team is not exclusively competitive but rather to "promote culture and running and launch the message of solidarity and the fight against racism and violence of all types".

The Coni president, Giovanni Malago, welcomed the Vatican team, even though he acknowledged they might one day deprive Italy of a medal. He joked to Vatican officials: "Just don't get too big."

In recent years, the Vatican has fielded unofficial football teams and a cricket team who have helped forge relations with the Anglican church through annual tours in Britain. The track team are the first to have a legal status in Vatican City and to be an official part of the Italian sporting umbrella, able to compete in nationally and internationally sanctioned events and take advantage of the Italian national coaching, scientific and medical resources.

Vatican Athletics’ first official outing is the La Corsa di Miguel on January 20th, a 10km race in Rome honouring Miguel Sánchez, an Argentine distance runner who was one of the thousands of young people who “disappeared” during the country’s Dirty War.

The choice is significant: Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a young Jesuit superior in Argentina during the military dictatorship’s crackdown on alleged leftist dissidents.