Going for the Gold
As Russia prepares to welcome the world’s most elite athletes onto its frozen soil for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, Victor Podluzhny, an Athletes in Action staff member in Russia, is striving to create avenues to share the Christian message by capitalizing on the popularity of this global event.
"Russia is a country where sports has first position in society, so it is very easy for us to share the gospel in this platform," says Podluzhny.
The 2014 Winter Games will kick off on February 7 in Sochi, Russia, but sports ministry in this country has been expanding for many years.
Carl Dambman, who helped to open the AIA outreach in Russia, spent 35 years serving the Russian people through sports ministry. He first began this mission as a competitive wrestler.
In the early 70's, Dambman, along with a number of other American wrestlers, traveled to what was then the Soviet Union to compete. In addition to competing, the team shared the Christian faith with their opponents, which was outlawed by the Soviet government.
In 1979, Dambman and his wife moved to Europe with three other AIA couples to serve and train for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Although the U.S. team boycotted the Olympics that year in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Dambman and his colleagues began traveling within the Soviet bloc on a regular basis. They competed, built friendships and talked with all who were interested in learning about the Christian faith. Soon he, his wife and three children moved to Moscow.
“There was a lot of curiosity about Christianity at that point. People had been told for seven decades that there is no God – that only weak or old people believe in God," Dambman remembers. "It was quite an exciting time. Many times when I gave someone a Bible, they would actually cry because they had never held a Bible before in their life. They had only heard of it from their grandparents."
An Expanding Russian Outreach
Many years later, God used the ministry that Dambman helped to start to grab Podluzhny’s attention. A former Soviet military swimming champ, Podluzhny spent 12 of his 20 years as a Soviet Navy submarine captain competing in sports. He retired from the Navy in 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1992, after attending many camps, sports clubs and events held by AIA, the retired captain gave his life to Christ.
“After watching the Jesus film 20 times and hearing over 50 testimonies and gospel presentations,” says Podluzhny, “I didn't have any choice but to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”
Shortly after Podluzhny became a follower of Christ, he joined the staff of Athletes in Action.
"I saw how Russia needed spiritual renewal," he says. "And I wanted to serve Jesus here. The most valuable area for me to serve in was sports ministry because of my sports background."
By the turn of the century, AIA had staff members serving across Russia and in several of the former Soviet republics. Throughout the years national leaders have been able to build upon the foundation of sports ministry that Dambman and his North American colleagues started in the region. Over the years, the outreach has gained a great deal of credibility within the world of Russian sports.
Now, Podluzhny and a team of seven staff members are involved in outreaches like coaching high school teams, leading chapels for elite athletes, sharing about Christianity during major sporting events, and preparing and distributing sports Bibles and brochures.
“Year by year, a sports ministry movement began”
When the ministry in the Soviet Union began, one conference for sports ministry took place each year. Now, AIA, through partnerships with a number of organizations, holds over 100 sports ministry conferences and trainings in Russia each year.
"At first, churches just rejected us because they thought that it was impossible to show love and compassion through sport," says Podluzhny. "But year by year, a sport ministry movement began through a number of volunteers."
In an enormous country spanning 11 times zones, the volunteer movement has gained momentum over time.
"Fifteen years ago we made the decision to build a movement where local sports ministers can represent AIA in their own cities and regions," says Podluzhny. "Our volunteers attend conferences twice a year for teaching, training and practice. We also supply them with sports materials and the support that is needed for their ministry. We now have 35 volunteers who are doing ministry in 22 cities and districts."
The volunteers came from former Soviet countries in Europe and Asia to Moscow for the sake of learning how to clearly and effectively share the Christian message through sports. As the AIA program grew, so did the credibility of sports evangelism. Local churches began to get on board, with many beginning their own sports ministries.
"We would like to see all churches involved in sports ministry," says Podluzhny. "We want all churches to understand that sports ministry is a great tool for evangelism and discipleship."
With the upcoming Olympic Games, sports in Russia is attracting a wider audience than ever. This brings a significant opportunity for the message of salvation through Jesus to be spread through sports outreaches at local churches. Podluzhny and his team are eager to capitalize on the excitement of the Games and see the number of churches and volunteers involved throughout the nation continue to grow.
"We hope that from the 2014 Olympics, we could continue to build relationships with officials and athletes throughout the sports world," he says. "We hope that the volunteers who come for the games will continue with the ministry so that we can build teams that will reach out during the next global sporting events [that] will come to Russia."
Want to have a part in reaching out to Olympic athletes? From now until the start of the Olympics on February 7, you can sign up to pray for a group of athletes by name. Go to olympics.athletesinaction.org and click ‘Pray for Sochi’ to sign up, and we’ll email you the names, sports and nationalities of athletes to encourage through prayer.
By Rebecca Kearney
Photos: Victor Podluzhny (right), a leader of AIA in Russia, poses with AIA partner Bill Shubin and a Russian athlete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. One of AIA's global strategies is to be available to meet at international sporting events with athletes who express a desire to talk about the Christian faith; AIA staff in Russia emphasize finding volunteers and churches to be involved in sports ministry in order to reach an enormous country that spans 11 time zones.