“Let me be brave in my attempt” or the real Special Olympics
Juan Antonio Belmar
April 26, 2024

Santiago de Chile was ratified this Wednesday by Special Olympics as the venue for the next Special Olympics World Games 2027, a mega event that concentrates the participation of 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities. For the first time a Latin American country will assume an unprecedented challenge, as well as put into orbit and on the table the reality and cultural contrasts and social identity that exist in this area.

Let’s make a brief summary of Special Olympics in the world, to understand its scope and objectives and, from there, reflect on the importance of bringing this event to the capital of Chile.

STRUCTURE

Special Olympics is a global, world-leading movement of sports for people with intellectual disabilities and focuses on building a worldwide network of athletes of all ability levels who compete in sports while creating communities of leaders committed to inclusion, acceptance and dignity for all. Headquartered in Washington, Special Olympics takes place year-round in seven regions around the globe, 170 countries are part of the organization and has 220 programs operating daily to provide empowerment in 32 Olympic-type sports.

ATHLETES

Special Olympics welcomes athletes with intellectual disabilities as young as 8 years old at all ability levels to train and compete. To be eligible athletes must have a cognitive delay or developmental disability, i.e., functional limitations in both general learning and adaptive skills, and may also have a physical disability.

SPORTS PHILOSOPHY

Special Olympics believes deeply in the power of sport to help all participants reach their potential and does not exclude any athlete based on qualifying scores. Instead, it relies on those points to separate athletes into divisions of fair competition with others of similar ability. For Special Olympics, the “excellence” of athletes is in their personal achievements, a reflection of reaching their full potential, a goal to which all can aspire.

After putting into context the transformative power of Special Olympics, we delve deeper to analyze and become aware of what we have today as a culture about disability sport in general and what the immediate future demands of us. The most recent experience goes back to the PanAm and ParapanAm Santiago 2023 Games, two states very different from each other having as venue the same sports venues: the first enjoyed an audience that exceeded all expectations, with statistics never seen in previous games, with live coverage and transmission by all television channels for the 39 sports in competition. On the other hand, in the Parapan American Games, the media and the public were not up to the task and were indebted to the para-athletes. The stampede was felt in the sports venues, many of which were less than half full.

“Awareness in responsibility”

I put this example to create awareness in the responsibility that the country as a whole has to respond to the natural expectations that Special Olympic has in granting Chile the organization of the Special Olympics World Games, it is not only the investment that is made available by the government of President Gabriel Boric, who committed 250 million dollars to organize and produce the Games in Santiago 2027, there is also the Legacy of The Games in sports infrastructure, the high level of connectivity that Santiago de Chile has, its high standards in hospitality, its cosmopolitan seal …. In short, it meets all the requirements to guarantee the success of the Games, there are no antagonistic visions or positions on the excellence that Chile has in organizing world-class events.

But, I want to go a little further, I ask myself again and again: are we prepared as a society to recognize the importance of these games in Chile? The answer is a resounding no, without any doubts. If for the Parapan American Games we are in debt with the public and the media, at least we have to put an alert to produce changes and not to repeat what happened in the past. However, this process of cultural and social changes to empathize with athletes with intellectual disabilities does not happen overnight, it requires a long time of maturation and, most importantly, we must be able to integrate them, respect them and value them as people who seek through sport to fulfill their own dreams, however small or large they may be.

I am left with a final reflection of Carolina Picasso, president of Special Olympics Chile: “Sport is a healing medicine for the soul and mind of athletes with intellectual disabilities, sport in its maximum expression is a transforming tool that has no boundaries, with passion, will and acceptance of society, everything is possible”.

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