Every four years since the first event was held in Chicago in 1968, thousands of athletes with mental and physical disabilities from around the world have gathered to showcase their abilities at the Special Olympics.
This year, the weeklong games were held in Shanghai from October 2-11, the first time the event has taken place in China. Within the span of the 12 months following the Special Olympics, the mainland will also host the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
Shanghai played host to the largest number of athletes ever to take part in the games. In total, some 7,500 athletes from 164 countries competed in groups based on ability from power lifting, equestrian, aquatics, bowling to track and field.
“I know I can”
The games are seen as particularly important in helping shed positive light on people living with intellectual disabilities. As such, they received much investment as well as wide media coverage in China. About US$8 million was spent on the event to ensure everything ran smoothly. On top of that, over 40,000 local and overseas volunteers were on hand to look after the Special Olympic athletes and guests.
Posters of the event’s “I know I can” slogan were put up across the city to express the mission of the games: that athletes strive for self-improvement, fostering friendships and promote the exchange of skills in the process.
This is part of the reason why thousands of medals were awarded over the course of the event, including about 3,000 gold ones. This far exceeds the 302 gold medals that will be presented at the Beijing Olympics.
“This was the best experience of my life,” said 17-year-old Emily Srebro, who won five gold medals for the USA in the artistic gymnastics competition.
Srebro, who was followed to China by reporters from her hometown, has become something of a celebrity in China as well, with a number of local newspapers picking up her story.
But the glut of medals awarded diminsh the accomplishment of getting into the games. The athletes must pass national competitions and be nominated by their country in order to take part. The USA gymnastics team was made up of three boys and seven girls who had overcome stiff competition to win a seat on the plane to China.
Glen Marks, Srebro’s coach, was very proud of his team, which trains for two to five hours, four times a week. “These athletes are role models to kids with special needs,” he said.
Aside from the medal-winning highlights, the cultural experience has been one that has left a lasting impression on the minds of both participants and volunteers.
“I taught Team USA to use chopsticks and they taught me how to use a fork,” said a volunteer from Fudan University who was assigned to look after the American team.
For the family members of the athletes, the Special Olympics present an opportunity to see their loved ones challenged and encouraged to have dreams and goals in life.
“Being part of a team and being able to represent your country and putting on the Irish tracksuit is just fantastic,” said Vivian Buckley. Her son Kieran, 25, brought home one gold medal and two silver medals in the equestrian events.
Buckley sees the Special Olympics as more than just a competiton. Being involved has made her son more independent in everyday life – Kieran works three days a week and participates in community activities.
According to a government survey carried out in Shanghai during the games, there is a 94% approval rate for people with special needs.
“It is up to people to offer their support to help make [people with disabilities’] dreams a reality … because you come to find there are things that people with intellectual disabilities are very good at,” Buckley added.
Cao Yang, the coach of China’s gymnastics team echoed that sentiment. “The physical training promotes a sense of achievement and balance in lifestyle which breeds confidence. The athletes serve as evidence that no one should be limited by their disabilities.”