In 1968, the word “special” was used to describe the first Olympic competition designed for athletes with cognitive challenges.
In the subsequent 41 years, this term became more descriptive of sportsmanship, spirit and approach to athletics rather than the challenges participants face.
This week Boise, Idaho, will host more than 2,400 athletes with intellectual disabilities and 6,000 volunteers from 107 nations for the Special Olympics World Winter Games.
An individual is considered to have an intellectual disability based on an IQ below 75 and significant limitations in adaptive skills that manifest themselves before age 18. There are more than 200 million people with intellectual disabilities worldwide, making them the largest disability population in the world. Participation in Special Olympics can begin at age eight.
These winter games will include alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, floor hockey, snowboarding, snowshoeing and speed skating. The floor hockey event will have several “unified teams.” A unified team consists of both athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without. The non-disabled athletes are referred to as partners. Interestingly, it appears that the partners on these teams gain as much satisfaction as the special olympians from the bonding that takes place on the gym floor.
Michelle Hayes is a nurse at Backus Hospital. Her son, Michael, is a 16-year-old swimmer who participates in summer games.
“The sense of accomplishment attained by athletes on the playing field clearly carries over to success in other areas,” Hayes said. “What is most inspiring is witnessing how, despite the competitive nature of sports, these athletes don't hesitate to assist opponents who may be struggling during an event.”
Many current sporting events have become overrun with commercialism, high salaries and poor sportsmanship. It's interesting that it may take a group of athletes with intellectual disabilities to remind us of how “special” sports should be.