Sister Marie Theo, third from left, sits among other athletes of the Athletica Vaticana Vatican sports team, as they attend a press conference, at the Vatican Image Credit: AP

Rome: Five years after entering the world of googlies, square leg and spin bowling with the formation of its own cricket team, the Vatican yesterday founded its first athletics association.

The running club consists of 60 members, including soldiers from the Swiss Guard, employees of the Vatican City State, officers from the city state’s police force, priests and nuns.

Inspiration for the track team came from a group of Vatican employees who meet regularly along the banks of the Tiber, which curves through Rome just a few hundred yards from St Peter’s Basilica.

The youngest club member is a 19-year-old Swiss Guard, while the oldest is a 62-year-old professor who works in the Vatican’s Apostolic Library.

Athletes of the Athletica Vatican team pose for the media in front of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. Image Credit: AP

Aside from working up a sweat, the aim is to use sport to promote inter-religious dialogue and understanding.

It could be a while before the Vatican’s yellow and white flag flutters over the Olympics, but the Holy See team plans to participate in other competitions, such as the Mediterranean Games and the Games of the Small States of Europe — open to countries with fewer than one million people. Giovanni Malago, the president of the Italian Olympic Committee, welcomed the formation of the association but jokingly asked them not to become too good.

“Just don’t get too big,” he told Vatican officials at the launch, recalling how an athlete from Kosovo won an Olympic medal when she defeated her Italian rival in the final of the women’s 52kg judo event at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

The club, called Vatican Athletics, will compete for the first time this month in Rome, when members take part in the La Corsa di Miguel, which commemorates Miguel Sanchez, an Argentine distance runner who was one of the thousands of people who were murdered during that country’s “Dirty War”.

Two Muslim migrants have been allowed to join as honorary members of the association, in accord with Pope Francis’s support for asylum seekers.

One of them, Jallow Buba, 22, from Gambia, was sold as a slave three times in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean in a smuggler’s boat.

The Vatican formed its own cricket team, the St Peter’s XI, in 2013 and it has since toured England, competing against local clubs and Church of England teams.

It recruits from Catholic priests and seminarians in Rome who come from cricket-loving nations such as India, Pakistan, Australia, England and South Africa.