The following is a reflection on the Special Olympics World Summer Games Athens 2011 from Jenni Newbury, Curriculum and Education Resource Manager for Special Olympics International.
The 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece was the largest sporting event in the world this year. Spectators watched athletes from 170 different countries compete at the highest level in 22 Olympic sports.
Having grown up in the Down syndrome community, I understand the positive impact sport has on people like my brother, Jason. More importantly, I understand the ability of sport to break down barriers: people don’t need to speak the same language to compete on the soccer field, and while many of my friends growing up weren’t comfortable hanging out with my brother, they were often willing to come watch him and his teammates play baseball. Special Olympics is based on the claim that sports can change attitudes, open minds, and renew hearts. But how do you get to that point? How do you take an impressive sporting experience and translate that into a life-changing moment?
Over the past two weeks I had the opportunity to work behind the scenes at the World Games, specifically in the area of guest management and Unity Sports. It was here that I was able to see this translation of Special Olympics in action. In guest management, I had the privilege of working with our U.S. Presidential Delegation as they experienced the opening ceremonies and some of the first few activities of the Games. For Unity Sports, I worked to assist in the execution of a variety of sporting events where Special Olympics All Star Fans competed alongside and against Special Olympics athletes in a variety of sports. Both experiences provided tremendous interactive opportunities for our guests to get a real idea of the taste and feel of Special Olympics.
Through these opportunities, we invited people into the bigger picture of Special Olympics. Yes, we were at the largest sporting event of the year, but Special Olympics is more than just an event. Dr. Jill Biden could have easily sat and watched the Opening Ceremonies as the athletes marched in. But instead, she spent time doing a meet and greet with the U.S. Delegation and then marched alongside the U.S. athletes, shaking hands and getting a front row seat to the excitement and anticipation for the Games to begin. Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan and Apollo Ohno could have easily sat on the sidelines to cheer on the roller skating teams. But instead, they laced up their skates and competed in a relay with Special Olympics athletes by their side, close enough to see the lines of determination and courage on every athlete’s face. Dr. Vetumbuavi Veii, Director of Sport in the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture of Namibia, could have easily attended his country’s events, cheering for Namibia on the sidelines and then calling it a day. But instead, he took the time to attend a breakfast on Youth Engagement, sharing his personal experience with Special Olympics and the impact it has had on his life. He staged a discussion among athletes, youth, staff and other world leaders so that they could challenge the next generation to transform Special Olympics in the future.
Hundreds of competitions took place during the ten day span of these Games. With every competition, records were shattered, expectations were surpassed, and boundaries were broken. And yet, in the midst of it all, those behind the scenes were making sure that the message was heard loud and clear:
“Playing unified isn’t enough, we have to live unified.”
“These Games are part of something much greater – a dignity revolution.”
In Athens, I had the privilege of watching this message sink in – watching as a face of sympathy or compassion turned into determination for social change; as fans of the Games transformed into champions for a movement. The power of sport as a vehicle for change is an undeniable part of our 40 year history. Yet, what we’ve learned in Athens is that the interactions off the field are just as valuable – the message of the Games, or the simple statement of Ime Mesa (I’m in!) motivates people to take a step beyond medals and to join the movement of unity and respect in their own area as the athletes from each country lead the dignity revolution back home.