What’s so 'special' about Special Olympics...?

By Ronan King

How volunteering with Special Olympics can help you to discover the best in yourself.

US anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “We should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Because, in fact, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Special Olympics movement in 1968 by Eunice Shriver, sister to US President, John F. Kennedy. It started small - today Special Olympics International embraces over 5 million athletes in 180 countries across the world - and is a leader and a beacon to the rest of the world on what can be achieved by volunteers, when committed individuals put their minds and their shoulders to the wheel to make a difference in the lives of others.

Special Olympics is the living embodiment of Winston Churchill’s observation that “You make a living by what you get; but you make a life by what you give”. This magical movement every day 'changes lives' and allows us all to 'share the feeling' of human togetherness and community. It’s hard to believe that in bygone decades and centuries, people with learning difficulties were often treated as a source of fear and shame, locked away lest they caused embarrassment or unease to others. Through the Special Olympics movement today, these same individuals are trained to compete on level playing fields in local, regional, national and international sporting events designed and run to exacting standards to showcase the triumph of ability over inability. Through the core sports and related programs such as Healthy Athletes and the Athlete Leadership Programme (ALP), they learn to take personal responsibility and to develop confidence in their own abilities and inner strengths.

Forty years ago, in 1978, Special Olympics Ireland was established, and in 2003, for the first time in their history, the Special Olympics Summer World Games were hosted outside the United States - on the island of Ireland. It was a huge undertaking on a scale never before achieved with 10,000 athletes and coaches, and 32,000 volunteers. In June 2003, after four years of tough work, planning and near catastrophes such as SARS, the Games delivered the greatest example of the triumph of ability, inclusiveness and willpower that Ireland has ever witnessed, as the entire island embraced and celebrated the achievements of a global family of courageous, committed individuals enjoying their moment of fame. Indeed, as then-CEO Mary Davis - now Global CEO of Special Olympics International - wrote afterwards: “The Athletes were truly amazing; their bravery knew no bounds, their strength in the face of adversity was remarkable, and their talents were evident in every event they contested. They changed our vision too; they changed the way we see them, because now - we see able athletes. And Ireland will be a better place because of this shift in vision….”

And it is that fundamental change in attitudes that makes Special Olympics so truly 'special'. The magic was perhaps best summed up by Nelson Mandela when he said: “You, the athletes, are ambassadors of the greatness of humankind. You inspire us to know that all obstacles to human achievement and progress are surmountable. Your achievements remind us of the potential to greatness that resides in every one of us.” Mandela went on to tell us all “Every athlete here is a victor already. Every one of you is free to be the best, free to be your best”. Coming from one of the all-time icons of human dignity and humility, who was denied freedom for much of his life, that is praise indeed. And highlighted the role that our athletes play in 'grounding us' and reminding us just how precious the gift of human life should be.

Apart from the athletes themselves, the unsung heroes of Special Olympics are their parents and families - whose natural love, resilience, courage and determination represent the very best of the human spirit. Through their dedication and the platform of the Special Olympics movement, they, in the words of Eunice Shriver, “help all of us to find the best in ourselves”.

Ronan King is a Patron of Special Olympics Ireland and served as Vice-Chairman of the Organising Committee for the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games.


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