Running on a prayer: Vatican launches track team

A pharmacist, a professor and nuns walk into a stadium. That's not the beginning of a joke, but a very real prospect after the Vatican launched an official track team on Thursday.

Vatican Athletics already has 60 accredited runners, which include Swiss Guards, priests, nuns, pharmacists and a 62-year-old professor who works in the Vatican's Apostolic Library.

Because of an agreement with the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the team will join the Italian track association and aims to become part of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

The Holy Grail would be to reach the Olympics.

"The dream that we have often had is to see the Holy See flag among the delegations at the opening of the Olympic Games," Monsignor Melchor Jose Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, team president and head of the Vatican's sports department in the culture ministry, said during a press conference.

But the Vatican is, for now, looking to participate in competitions that have cultural or symbolic values, such as the Games of the Small States of Europe — open to states with fewer than one million people — and the Mediterranean Games.

"We might even podium," Monsignor Melchor added.

'Promote culture and solidarity'

The track team is the Holy See's first official sporting endeavour, although it has, in recent years, launched unofficial football and cricket teams to forge relations in countries where the sports are popular.

For sister Marie Theo, a Catholic nun and half-marathon runner, sport among nuns "is more widespread than we might think, especially among new generations."

Wearing the team's navy tracksuit, emblazoned with the Vatican's coat of arms, Theo added that running for her was "a chance to find peace, to find a balance, to have a space of freedom, of silence and of being just alone with myself."

Vatican pharmacist-runner Michela Ciprietti told reporters that the team's first goal was "to promote culture and running and launch the message of solidarity and the fight against racism and violence of all types."

'Just don't get too big'

The team has the blessing of CONI President Giovanni Malago, who nevertheless hoped that it wouldn't deprive the national team of medals.

"Just don't get too big," he told the athletes during the launch of the team.

Its creation was also welcomed by the Italian Athletics Federation.

Vatican Athletics' first outing will be for the "La Corsa di Miguel" (Miguel's Race) race on January 20. The 10-km annual run in Rome honours Miguel Sanchez, an Argentine distance runner who was killed in 1978 because of his political ideas.