This year has been an incredible summer of sport with The Commonwealth Games, the British Transplant Games (and the Invictus Games coming up), celebrating the best of (physically) disabled sport. Of course, people with intellectual disabilities also take part in sport and that’s where the Special Olympics comes into its own.
The Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver as a movement to organise sports activities for people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics (SO) is one of the grand disability organisations, and is today, officially supported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Organisations like Special Olympics help to push our world to become a more inclusive place. Sport has always been a very natural concept to tap into since games of all sorts can be scaled in size or speed or intensity to make them suitable for anyone irrespective of their level of ability. Nevertheless, at whatever level sports are played (and enjoyed) they provide powerful lessons to those taking part and to those that choose to watch, about what (disabled) people can do. The mission statement of SO remains categorical, saying: “Through the power of sport, SO strives to create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people”. This simple statement continues to carry an important message for countries across the globe.
Special Olympics exists to provide year-round access to sports training and athletic competition in what it calls “Olympic-type sports” for children and adults with intellectual disabilities “giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”
The 2014 Special Olympics European Summer Games are about to get underway in Antwerp, Belgium and will run from 9-21 September. With 2,000 athletes from 58 countries expected to compete at the Games and enjoy almost two weeks of smiles and friendship with other the key objectives being to foster respect, acceptance, inclusion and dignity for people with intellectual disabilities through sports. The athletes will take part in 11 sports and are invited to join supporting cultural and arts programs connected with the Games.
The host country, Belgium, has been involved with Special Olympics since 1979 and counts 12,000 active members. In fact, every year Special Olympics Belgium organises a National Games competition under the patronage of His Royal Highness, King Philippe.
Such is the interest in Special Olympics Belgium that it has supported the idea of an Olympic-style torch relay. In fact, there is real enthusiasm, since Belgium has never hosted an Olympic flame at a competition of any type. Although it hosted the 1920 Olympics, the flame did not travel internationally at that point. This means that for the first time, a flame will burn for the duration of a Games in Belgium and it’s difficult to think of a stronger way of tying the Special Olympics to the Olympics than that.
Naturally, the Special Olympics are already, as mentioned earlier, affiliated with the International Olympic Committee and the flame will be lit in time-honoured fashion, in Greece, arriving in Belgium for the start of a relay that will stretch 450 km around the whole of Belgium.
Back home in the UK, Special Olympics GB are making their final preparations to send their athletes to the competition. The GB team consists of 49 athletes, seven head coaches and nine coaches accompanied by the team’s head of delegation, assistant head of delegation, family coordinator, physio and PR coordinator. It’s quite an undertaking.
Special Olympics athletes have an opportunity to take part in competitions all year-round locally and regionally, and in fact, these competitions provide them with the necessary qualifications under the Special Olympics GB (SOGB) rules to compete at a major event such as that held in Antwerp or for the World Summer or Winter Games (that take place every four years).
This process of gaining experience is not to prove sporting prowess or collect qualification times and the like but is seen as a progressive and fair competition pathway. An athlete is not able to take part, for example, in a national competition without first having competed in local and regional events first and so on.
The Special Olympics competition programme is based on inclusive ‘divisioning’, meaning that athletes compete against others with similar intellectual disabilities in any one of 26 sports. This type of system gives more athletes the opportunity to experience success and achievement.
The non-elite nature of the competition means that any Special Olympics athlete from as young as eight years of age has the opportunity to compete, although athletes are required to complete a minimum of 26 weeks of training before being eligible to take part in a competition. The vast majority of the work that Special Olympics does in the UK then is through the qualified sports coaches based in the 150 clubs in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Special Olympics is an organisation that shows time and again why sport is important and how it can be used to further progress in concepts such as inclusion and respect. The European Summer Games in Antwerp are going to be very special indeed.
Special Olympics GB