Top sportsmen find support in faith

August 11, 2004

LISBON, Portugal — When Nelson Evora hurtles through the air during the Olympic Games this month, he will know that his fellow Baha'is will be with him in spirit.

Nelson Evora, who will represent Portugal in the triple jump, has often expressed his gratitude for the support of the Baha'i community in his adopted homeland.

"The Baha'i community has helped me, supported me, and given me confidence to strive to do my best in sports and in aspects of life," he said just before heading for Athens.

He is one of a group of Baha'i professional sportsmen competing at the top levels who have expressed their views about the influence of their faith on their participation in their sport.

Others are tennis player Miles Kasiri (United Kingdom), baseballer Khalil Greene (United States), and footballer Luke McPharlin (Australia).

Mr. Evora, 20, has won gold medals in the triple and long jump events as a junior in recent European athletic meetings and he holds the Portuguese record for the triple jump (under 23) event.

Born in Cote D'Ivoire where his parents had gone to live from Cape Verde, Nelson relocated to Portugal when he was five.

The family moved into an apartment that happened to be on the floor above Nelson's future coach, trainer and mentor, Joao Ganco, a member of the Portuguese Baha'i community.

Nelson Evora with his coach, Joao Ganco. Slideshow
8 images

Nelson Evora with his coach, Joao Ganco.

Mr. Ganco, who introduced Mr. Evora to the Baha'i Faith, describes the young star as a talented athlete and as responsible, humble, good-humored, and helpful.

After the Olympics, Mr. Evora will study in the faculty of management at the University of Lisbon.

Miles Kasiri, tennis

Miles Kasiri, 18, this year became the first British player in 32 years to make the boys' (under 19) final at Wimbledon.

He finished as runner up, and came close to achieving an upset win over number one seed, Gael Monfils, of France.

Mr. Kasiri will compete in the junior tournament at the United States Open in New York next month.

He says the Baha'i Faith's strong emphasis on self-discipline has influenced his participation in his sport.

"That's essential if you are going to be a good athlete -- it helps me to have a good work ethic and really strive to do my best.

"And the fact that the Baha'is don't drink alcohol is very important if you are going to keep physically fit."

Mr. Kasiri said his Faith also gives him a very positive outlook. A spiritual perspective, he said, also keeps the game in perspective.

"At the moment I don't do much else except play tennis but being a Baha'i gives me something else to think about, and the consciousness that there is, of course, more to life than the sport."

He said his aim was to be the best he can be in his sport at an international level.

"The Faith puts a lot of emphasis on striving for excellence, and that is what I am doing."

Mr. Kasiri grew up as a Baha'i in Margate, Kent, with his English mother and Iranian father.

He competed in his first international competition at 11. At 13, he won a scholarship to train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida that produced tennis stars such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Anna Kornikova, and this year's ladies Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova. Mr. Kasiri is currently based at the Queens Club headquarters in London.

Khalil Greene, baseball

A member of the United States Baha'i community, Khalil Greene has received extensive media coverage for his skills and temperament as he competes in the National League, one of North America's two major baseball competitions.

In April Mr. Greene, 24, from Key West, Florida, was named the league's "rookie of the month," less than two years after being named the top amateur player of the year in the United States, and college baseball's player of the year.

Mr. Greene plays shortstop for the San Diego Padres, a position requiring quick reflexes and intense concentration. In the US sports media, veteran players have been tipping Mr. Greene as a potential star of the future.

Director of scouting (talent spotting) with the San Diego Padres, Bill Gayton, told the "San Diego Union-Tribune" newspaper that Mr. Greene is "not very excitable" -- unusual in a game known for its extroverted culture.

"He's hard to get to know but once you get to know him, everyone loves him. He's humble."

Explaining his quiet off-the-field presence, Mr. Greene told the newspaper "faith and background" are a big part of his approach to life.

"I have a perspective on it," he said. "You look at the overall of why you are here. You try to find a happy medium...not overly excitable and not too upset."

"I tried to fit in as a team player more than as an individual player, and in doing so I was able to achieve a lot of individual feats."

Raised as a Baha'i by his parents, Jim and Janet Greene, he makes prayer and reading the Baha'i Writings as much a part of his daily life as his training.

A feature article in the "Anderson (South Carolina) Independent-Mail" portrayed Greene as disciplined in eating and exercise, devoted to the Baha'i Faith and faithful to its moral standards, and respected by coaches and teammates alike.

Luke McPharlin, football

Another Baha'i professional sportsman in the media spotlight is Luke McPharlin, 22, who plays Australian Rules football for the Fremantle Dockers team in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Mr. McPharlin formerly played for the Hawthorn football club in Melbourne but was later recruited back to his home city of Perth, where his new team has since experienced a dramatic rise in fortunes. Commentators cite his contribution as one of the reasons for the change.

The game is unique to Australia and is known for its almost continuous action, its high leaps for the ball and skills in kicking and catching while running at speed.

Playing at center half-back, Mr. McPharlin is responsible for preventing thrusts by the attacking forwards of the opposition and for setting up counter attacks.

Asked how being a Baha'i affects his role as a professional sportsman, Mr. McPharlin said he always had "an awareness that I'm representing the Baha'i community in all on-field exploits so I've always tried to play the game fairly."

Being a Baha'i also affects the way he looks at football: "Sport is just one aspect of life -- as Baha'is we should endeavor to develop all our capacities."

He says initially he was discreet about his beliefs but as time has gone on he has opened up and now teammates respect his no alcohol policy.

"It certainly helps with fitness but more importantly recovery, as alcohol has been linked with lengthening recovery from injury."

Although his football commitments involve a working week of six to seven days -- with an average of five contact hours daily -- he is half way through a degree in biomedical science.

Brought up in a Baha'i family by his parents, Ian and Marion McPharlin, he is a member of a Baha'i Local Spiritual Assembly and is involved with study circles using the Ruhi Institute material.

"I endeavor to visit Baha'i junior youth groups as often as I can and give talks."

Mr. McPharlin, who plays the guitar, writes songs and sings, has also produced with friends two CDs of music inspired by the Baha'i Faith. "The idea was to create positive music that could fall into a commercial bracket."

Some of the music has been played on a popular television sports program and the CD is a brisk seller at his football club.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Nelson Evora won the Olympic gold medal in August 2008 at the Olympics in Beijing, China. This note appended 21 September 2008.)