or anyone flying into LAX, it’s impossible to ignore the imagery. All around the airport are huge posters featuring athletes with smiling faces, promoting what will be the biggest sporting event this year on US soil and the biggest in LA since the 1984 Olympic Games – at least by number of participants.
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This weekend, for the first time in 16 years, the Special Olympics World Games will return to the US with more than 6,500 athletes from 177 countries competing in 25 Olympic-type sports, ranging from track and field to softball and sailing. After a star-studded opening gala Saturday, about a half million spectators are expected over nine days in venues across Los Angeles. They will watch athletes with a variety of intellectual disabilities, including autism and Down’s Syndrome, competing against one another, as well as alongside non-disabled participants in a series of ‘unified sports’ contests. More will be able to watch on ESPN, which is broadcasting from the event.
The games’ youngest competitor is a nine-year old, Hoi Kei Tang, from Macau, who will take part in athletics events. The oldest is 71-year-old golfer Patrick Rutherford from Ireland.
Talk to any of those taking part, coaching or volunteering at this year’s games and two words are repeated: buzz and excitement. When they arrive a few days in advance of the games with their team-mates from Hawaii, 18-year-old athletics competitor Chaunci Cummings and swimmer Ikaika Morita-Sunada, 27, are typical. Both say they are “very excited” to take part and to play sports they have trained hard for, but also that meeting new people from around the world is part of the appeal.
Attending her first World Games, high school math teacher Dana Griesinger from St Louis, Missouri who has been a volunteer coach for local Special Olympics sports programmes for over two decades sums up the anticipation for the 2015 games as “giving me goose bumps”.
“This is the dream of a lifetime for me,” Griesinger, who coaches softball, explains. “My goal for this trip is that [my athletes] play to their potential. They work so hard.” Of the training in the run-up to the games, she says: “I’ve seen their excitement grow. I’ve seen their skills improve. It’s been a great journey.”
Special Olympics as an organization, and World Games, which it launched in 1975 and oversees, are unique among global sporting fraternities. This isn’t just because the focus is people with intellectual disabilities, a group that has historically been excluded and marginalized in many communities and societies, but because it forms part of a broader movement to change attitudes around disability.
While it has expanded over the years into a worldwide diverse assortment of sporting, education and health programmes which have over four million regular participants, Special Olympics’ roots (it is a disability non-profit unconnected to the Olympic Games) are very much in the US. Founded almost half a century ago in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose sister Rosemary Kennedy had an intellectual disability, Special Olympics began as an attempt to reduce people’s isolation and to shift the emphasis from what children and adults affected could not do to what they could accomplish, eventually branching out to become an international movement. Keeping the family connections in place, Kennedy Shriver’s son Tim Shriver, is the current chair.
To be eligible for Special Olympics or the World Games, participants must be at least eight years old and be identified by an agency or professional as having one or more of a number of designated conditions including “cognitive delays” or “significant learning or vocational problems”. People who are involved compete year-round in local sports events, with many going on to be athletes at World Games (the games alternate every two years between winter and summer events). Others go on to mentor other athletes and to qualify as trainers and coaches.
Marc Edenson, the current chief of global programmes for Special Olympics and someone who has been involved for 30 years, says the fact that the 2015 World Games are in LA has special significance because of its US heritage – but adds that it puts a wider spotlight on the role sports generally can play in improving people’s lives.
“It was born in the US, but it really has become a global movement,” Edenson says. “The games are a very powerful statement. They really tell the world what our athletes can do on the playing field, and then defines how our athletes should be included in the community. What happens at the world games like this is the spotlight is on the athletes and that tells a story. When people see that our athletes can achieve at sport and excel in sport – the fraternity of sport, the community – has the ability to reach out and include them.”
The sports included within Special Olympics have changed over the years, Edenson points out. Early on, track and field and individual sports like aquatics and sprinting dominated, but later, team sports like soccer and basketball became commonplace, as did “technical sports” like judo and golf. In different parts of the world certain sports are more popular: for example, soccer in South America and basketball in the US.
The expansion into unified sports is a singularly important development, he adds. “I think what’s special about these games is that throughout the years we’ve seen increased performance levels and unified sports. [It’s] an inclusive sports initiative that ensures that athletes are able to play not only on a team through unified sport but then to be able to be accepted into their community in the mainstream sports.”
Increasingly, individual US states are championing unified sports, a recent example of which was when a new law was passed in New Jersey, specifically encouraging schools to foster sports participation for all students.
That the first lady Michelle Obama will be present at the opening to the World Games “is a statement by the United States as host of the games that the emphasis is not only on participation and inclusive activity, but also health” Edenson says.
Special Olympics Europe Eurasia president and managing director Mary Davis says the global impact of the World Games shouldn’t be underestimated. “For the athletes it means that they are not always taking part just at grassroots level. They have the chance to take part in world-class events like the one here in LA.”
Sports, Davis believes, can often be the difference between exclusion and discrimination and being accepted as part of the community. “I see the effect that participation in Special Olympics has on thousands of people. And it’s not just the athletes, but their families and their communities are changed as a result. We ourselves in Ireland – we hosted the world games in 2003 – saw the difference it has made for people’s attitudes towards people with an intellectual disability. It has fundamentally changed people’s lives forever.”
According to Edenson, for those people who attend the World Games over the coming days and see the events first hand and those who watch it on television, there is something distinctive in store. But, he adds, that part of the experience is the simple pleasure of watching sports. “I think they would find it is the purest sport that they would spectate. It is an opportunity to see sport for sports sake, to see athletes committed to doing their very best.
“There’s no politics, there’s no contracts, there’s only the commitment of these athletes and their coaches and their families to achieve on the playing field and then use that to achieve in life. That’s what’s so great about sport.”