Vatican City gains cycling federation membership, a significant step towards realizing an Olympic dream

The UCI granted the Vatican membership during the organization’s 190th Congress, becoming the first international sports federation to do so.

Pope Francis and UCI President David Lappartient meet in March 2019 at the Vatican (Vatican City)
Pope Francis and UCI President David Lappartient meet in March 2019 at the Vatican (Vatican City)

Vatican City enjoys a significant achievement in its effort to be a more integrated member of the international sporting community by becoming an official member federation within the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

The announcement was made by the UCI on Friday, as part of the organization’s 190th Congress. The acceptance of Vatican City’s federation marks a significant milestone for both the Vatican City and the UCI.

As stated proudly by the UCI in a press release, the organization is now the first and only international federation to count the small nation among its membership. It also represents a significant step in the Vatican’s pursuit of Olympic inclusion.

Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca y Alameda, the head of the Vatican’s Culture and Sport department, was quoted by The Guardian in 2019, saying, “the dream that we have often had is to see the Holy See flag among the delegations at the opening of the Olympic Games.”

He has made significant efforts in recent years to pursue this dream as well. The establishment of Athletica Vaticana in 2019 marked the Vatican’s first major foray into international sports.

The athletics federation was set up in a dual effort with the Italian Olympic Committee in hopes that the Vatican could achieve recognition by World Athletics one day. That recognition has yet to come, but the club is still active and pursuing recognition.

Another significant step in the Vatican’s journey was their attempt to participate at the 2019 Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE). Unfortunately, the Vatican wasn’t able to compete in the Games due to administrative reasons, but the door was left open for future participation.

According to the Catholic media outlet Zenit, the team was supposed to gain full membership within the GSSE by the 2021 edition scheduled to take place in Andorra. That edition of the Games was later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the future participation of Vatican City in the Games of the Small States of Europe in limbo.

Besides the Games of the Small States of Europe, the Vatican also had plans to eventually attend the Mediterranean Games.

Monsignor Sánchez de Toca y Alameda was quoted by Zenit as saying, “thanks to the experience in Montenegro, Athletica Vaticana intends to proceed with a strategy of small steps up to the international level: first of all completing its affiliations to the IAAF and the EAF, the International and European Federations of Athletics.”

He continued, “Athletica Vaticana – which was not created only to run but first and foremost to create solidarity and cultural bridges between peoples with spirituality – has as its objective to favor and participate in competitions of high symbolic value, such as the Mediterranean Games that, in 2021, will take place in Oran in Algeria. The bishop in Oran, Monsignor Jean-Paul Vesco, is an excellent marathon runner and is already registered with our team.”

There has been no further information about the potential participation of Vatican City in the 2021 Mediterranean Games, which was another event postponed due to the pandemic.

The confirmation of the Vatican as both a member of the European Cycling Union (UEC) and UCI likely represents the continued interest the Holy See has in international sports.

It is also important to consider their membership in the UCI in regards to the national Olympic committee (NOC) recognition procedure laid out in the Olympic Charter.

The Olympic Charter states that, “Proof must be adduced that the national federations which are members of the NOC exercise a specific and real on-going sports activity in their country and internationally, in particular by organising and participating in competitions and implementing training programmes for athletes.”

“An NOC shall not recognise more than one national federation for each sport governed by an IF. Such national federations or the representatives chosen by them must constitute the voting majority of the NOC and of its executive organ.”

“At least five national federations included in an NOC must be affiliated to the IFs governing sports included in the programme of the Olympic Games.”

The Vatican would also need to form a provisional NOC and submit an application for recognition to the IOC.

A NOC representing Vatican City would also need to meet some additional housekeeping and administrative requirements to gain full recognition from the International Olympic Committee.

While the Vatican lacks a NOC, and has only now taken its first major steps to be included in the Olympic movement, the small nation does a have a fascinating recent history of forays into international sport.

In 2013, the Vatican launched an officially endorsed cricket club known as St. Peter’s Cricket Club. According to the BBC, the club was the idea of the Australian ambassador to the Holy See as a way to start interfaith dialogue in countries where cricket was popular.

St Peter's Cricket Club during its tour of Kenya in January 2020 (St Peter's Cricket Club/Facebook)
St Peter's Cricket Club during its tour of Kenya in January 2020 (St Peter's Cricket Club/Facebook)

The team is not officially the national team of the Vatican, but a club team made up of seminarians, priests, and other religious persons from around Rome. The team has toured countries such as Kenya and Argentina playing both youth national teams and local club teams.

Another sport with deep roots in Vatican culture is football. The Vatican City Football Association is responsible for governing the sport in the small country.

According to FIFA, there has been a club competition amongst various teams affiliated with the Vatican since 1972. The Vatican City Football Association also runs the Clericus Cup, which is essentially an unofficial World Cup competition for the seminarians and priests around Rome.

The Vatican City Football Association has also overseen the creation and governance of men’s and women’s national teams in more recent history. The women’s team was founded in 2019, and played their first official match the same year.

While the Vatican City has national teams, the Vatican City Football Association is not yet associated with FIFA. For now, football remains a sport with an inward focus at the Vatican. However, as the Vatican continues to look outward towards greater participation in international sport that may change.