Russia’s Olympic team received religious icons and a crash course in Orthodox church history in China during a Kremlin cathedral service on Tuesday.
The athletes and their coaches also met with President Dmitry Medvedev for a pep talk for the Summer Games, which start in Beijing on Aug. 8.
“You are going to China as representatives of Russian Orthodoxy in a critical period of Russian-Chinese relations,” Bronnitsky Bishop Ambrosy said at the service in the 15th-century Assumption Cathedral.
The two countries have been mending once-strained ties, most recently ending a 300-year dispute with the signing of a pact demarcating their 4,300-kilometer border on July 21.
The bishop on Tuesday offered a brief history of Russian Orthodoxy in China, noting that the church had suffered because of a lack of religious freedom in the country. “Unfortunately, the life of our religion has struggled during the 20th century in China,” he said.
However, he said, the athletes will be able to worship in Orthodox churches in Beijing.
He extended to the athletes a blessing from Patriarch Alexy II, who was home resting from a recent trip to Kiev.
Before the church service, the entire Olympic delegation attended a meeting with a cautiously optimistic Medvedev in the Grand Kremlin Palace. “Today, we won’t make any forecasts, but all Olympians should know that we support you with all our hearts,” Medvedev said in televised excerpts of his address.
Athletes said they appreciated the attention from the president and the church. “The meeting with Medvedev was official and spectacular and was meant to give us confidence,” said Yevdokia Grechishnikova, who will compete in the modern pentathlon in Beijing. “The blessing, however, was for our souls. Without it, going to China would be hard.”
“God always helps,” said Lyudmila Bodniyeva, a member of Russia’s first Olympic women’s handball squad. “I’m glad that we’ve been promised Orthodox services in Beijing.” In a brief discussion with reporters before the church service, a priest said attendance was optional and that only one-third of Russia’s 467 athletes and coaches were expected to show up.
Francesco Cuzzolin, an Italian assistant coach for the men’s basketball team and a Roman Catholic, said he attended the church service out of curiosity. “This is just like what happens at the Vatican for the Italian delegation, but 200 times smaller,” he said.
The entire delegation was dressed in team outfits — blazers emblazoned with the double-headed eagle and sneakers and shirts patterned in a Russian folk style. Male athletes wore blue and cream, while women were in red. “I’m not sure how we look individually, but as a whole, we make a beautiful impression,” Bodniyeva said of the uniform made by Bosco Sport, a general sponsor of the the country’s Olympic team.
At the end of the church service, athletes were given diptych icons encased in red and blue velvet. The athletes hurried out of the Kremlin and onto Red Square, blocked off to visitors for the afternoon, for a buffet that included asparagus sushi and white chocolate-covered strawberries. An actor dressed as the Olympic team’s mascot, the fuzzy, giant-eared Cheburashka, was present on Red Square to greet the athletes, who for the most part ignored the creature while they ate their lunch.
The Olympic delegation will leave for Beijing over the course of the next week, according to the Russian Olympic Committee’s press office.