A Day at the Special Olympics: Sports in its Purer Form

Think about the last time you went to watch a sporting event and found yourself unencumbered emotionally from the outcome. When you didn’t have a rooting interest in one team or the other. It’s an interesting question, one I wouldn’t have an answer to before last Saturday when I took a field trip to my alma mater UCLA to catch the end of the Special Olympics World Games.

I didn’t know the names of the competitors or which events would be contested that day, and I was not bothered in the slightest. There is an inherent dignity in competition that gets lost in the drive for results. That isn’t to say that competition itself is the culprit; it’s important to point out that the Special Olympics gives medals, and that they must be won. But when you can take a step back from the result, when you see that just because someone lost doesn’t make them a loser, it’s incredibly freeing. That merit isn’t tied solely to victory. There is inherent value in competition, apart from the scoreboard.

This excellent 30 for 30 short details the creation of the Special Olympics, from the movement’s humble beginnings as a summer camp in the Kennedy backyard in New England to its progression into the global movement that it is today. At this latest edition of the World Games in Los Angeles, there were 6,500 athletes from 165 countries competing across 25 sports.



One of the speakers at the Opening Ceremony was Jamaal Charles, star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs who competed in these games when he was just a boy. He said of his experience:

“I was afraid. I was lost. When I was a boy, I had trouble reading. I found out I had a learning disability. People made fun of me. They said I would never go anywhere. But I learned I can fly. When I was 10 years old, I had a chance to compete in the Special Olympics. That’s right, the Special Olympics gave me my first chance to discover the talent I did not know that I had.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Special Olympics has had across the world beyond the games themselves. In many countries, including this one, to be intellectually disabled or handicapped still carries with it a huge stigma. But the growth of this program has brought opportunity and awareness to these issues wherever it has spread, both in the United States and abroad.

It’s easy to be cynical these days, especially about sports. Looking just at the past couple weeks we’ve had a major doping scandal, two more stadiums getting rammed through with tons of public funding, and the NFL Hall of Fame refusing to let Junior Seau’s daughter speak at his induction, then (sort of) back tracking. The capper came when Vladmir Putin declared that Sepp Blatter deserves a Noble Prize. To his credit he didn’t specify which one; I’m guessing Economics.

With the massive amount of information that is more readily available today, it’s hard to follow sports without knowing how the sausage is made. Which is why it was so nice to take a step back last weekend, and see athletic competition in its purer form.

This fall, when the leaves start to turn and football stress ramps up, I will try to remember these lessons by the Special Olympics Athlete creed:

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

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