Special Olympics World Games

Everybody loves the Special Olympics World Games…I mean, what’s not to love? Aren’t the games a positive experience for all those athletes with mental and physical disabilities? Don’t the events showcase the successes of participants with mental retardation – a condition that, years ago, relegated them to desolate lives in dehumanizing institutions?


Eunice Shriver Kennedy started the Special Olympics movement, and these World Games have blossomed into one of the largest sporting events on the planet. The 1999 World Games in North Carolina featured appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Billy Crystal served as M.C. for the gala opening ceremonies. Maya Angelou inspired with a reading, NBA star Grant Hill addressed the athletes, Stevie Wonder entertained and Kathy Ireland, well, she was just Kathy Ireland, and that was enough.

Host cities love the competition because it can pump $50 million into the local economy. Big name sponsors see Special Olympics as worthwhile too – the North Carolina landscape was dotted with golden arches, Coke bottles, and M&M’s. These and other corporate sponsors like Bank America and General Motors helped foot the estimated $35 million bill for the event. Everybody knows that these companies are trying to better position themselves in the World Market, but the general sentiment is “bless them, anyway” (besides, all that money is “chump change” compared to the Superbowl and the Olympics.

All those volunteers believe in the Games, too. Thirty-five thousand of them converged on the Raleigh Durham area and parked cars, controlled crowds, housed athletes, fed everyone, and worked tirelessly to make the event a success. It made me snicker at the thought of our Massachusetts high school programs that make community service a graduation requirement – as if you could mandate caring.

And for many athletes from developing countries, the World Games represent the experience of a lifetime. In some third world countries retardation is believed to be a curse, and children so inflicted might be abandoned or even poisoned by their parents. At the World Games many get a chance to see how the “other half” lives, experiencing for the first time living conditions of the high-tech world. For some, their first encounter with an escalator was at the Raleigh Durham Airport, and they boarded with much trepidation. We heard of athletes who washed their hands and face and then drank the water, and others who consumed the unfinished juice in glasses left on the breakfast table. Athletes from tropical zones asked that the air conditioning be turned off. And others even thought they were to draw their water from the pond behind their host family’s home.

Despite all the obvious benefits I was surprised to find another side to the Special Olympics story. I was in North Carolina’s Triangle area to officiate the bocce competition. Long a passion of mine, bocce is one of the fastest growing sports in Special Olympics, since anyone who can roll a ball can play. As many athletes from track and field and other more physically demanding sports age, they make the transition to bocce.

It was at the bocce venue on the grounds of the picturesque Fearrington Village that we first heard the controversy. A newspaper headline read “Some advocates for mainstreaming assail the games.” Some think the Special Olympics movement is counter-productive to the efforts for mainstreaming, instead perpetuating the stereotype of the mentally retarded as poor unfortunates deserving of pity. And since the event is almost exclusively for the retarded, it only undermines the work being done toward inclusion. These critics maintain that even the adjective “special” is condescending. I read the article with great interest…it hadn’t occurred to me that there might even be debate about the benefits of The Games.

Nancy Weiss is executive director of the Baltimore based TASH, “an international association of people with disabilities…fighting for a society in which inclusion for all people in all aspects of society is the norm.” Weiss maintains that “all that (Special Olympics) time and energy and fundraising would do more good if put into integrated activities.” Labeling Special Olympics a segregated event, Weiss and TASH continue to hammer home the same, consistent message, promoting inclusive recreational activities.

Other critics point out that we should be rewarding academic achievements as well as the athletic. We ought to recognize the efforts made at surmounting what are, for many, the daunting tasks of developing independence, learning to cook, keep house, and manage money. And many parents reject the term special – what future opportunities might be lost once their child is labeled as special needs? The more you segregate, the more you foster separate and unequal. There are Special Boys Scout troops in some areas. Why wouldn’t these boys just be part of the existing scout troops? “That way,” maintains Weiss, “they’d have friends and role models with and without disabilities.”

There is a whole lot of hugging going on at Special Olympics, and some see this as demeaning to the athletes. College students and other volunteers, they allege, are recruited as “professional huggers.” It’s pretty obvious that no one should get in the habit of hugging strangers, but that is exactly what often takes place as volunteers and athletes embrace at the conclusion of each competition.

Special Olympics creates many divisions so that athletes are competing against others of nearly the same skill level. This makes for many gold, silver, and bronze medal winners. One newspaper headline read “These athletes are so good, they all walk away with medals.” The true nature of competition is that it creates more losers than winners.

All those Division I college basketball teams want to be NCAA champs, but only 64 make the tournament, and only one survives March Madness to earn the bragging rights. Isn’t the Special Olympics medal situation a kind of inflation? If so many are awarded, what is the value of a medal? Isn’t this demeaning to the athletes? Shouldn’t they be able to compete and be afforded the dignity of taking the risk of coming up empty?

All of these criticisms made sense to me – but, in North Carolina I felt that I was part of something positive. At the 1995 World Summer Games, in Connecticut, my first, I was struck by the fact that those with mental retardation were the “whole show.” They were the athletes, the coaches, officials, volunteers, and the entertainment. What’s more inclusive than that? And the Special Olympics competition is moving toward “unified” events, which pair athletes who have retardation with those who do not, but who have similar skill levels.

Don’t these events help raise consciousness, change people’s attitudes about mental retardation? The athletes love to compete and to meet people from different countries and to try to be the best that they can be. Don’t all of us who enjoy competition do just that – try to find a level at which we can compete and have fun? The reason I play hoop Thursday nights with the “old bucks” is because I can’t compete with the young kids anymore. And wasn’t one of the reasons I attended a small New England college so that I could play Division II baseball rather than take the chance of getting lost in the shuffle at a major university? Special Olympics represents a level at which athletes with disabilities can compete, have fun, and experience the positives and negatives of that competition. Placed alongside inclusive recreational activities, Special Olympics is a plus. Miami YMCA Executive Director Anna Necheles claims that “Special Olympics really makes a huge difference in people’s lives, and it shows the world what these athletes can do.” The games give athletes a start, and they can go on to parks and recreation leagues as the next step. Parents of an athlete from Ireland talked about how their daughter played in the town basketball league, but was a “bench warmer.” But in the World Summer Games she was a full-time player and her team won the gold. “She found an arena where she could excel,” says Necheles “and this can only have positive carry-over effects.”

Trying to clarify my thoughts on the Special Olympics experience, I reflected on my experience in North Carolina. I saw athletes treated as adults and always afforded basic human dignity. I didn’t see the so-called infantilization of adults with disabilities. I saw volunteerism in its purest form. People from all over the globe converged on the Triangle area and gave of themselves. Rico Daniele, owner of an Italian deli and Richard Calvanese, a self-employed CPA closed down their Massachusetts businesses to serve as volunteer officials. Kim Davis, a teacher from Boone, North Carolina, revamped her vacation schedule to be there.

I saw humor. When Wayne Boggs of Nebraska won the coin toss and I gave him his choice of red or green bocce balls, there was a short pause as he considered his options. Then with a big grin he decided “I’ll take red…same color as my pick-up.” And I saw tears. When Wayne needed one more point to win the gold medal, he looked toward the heavens, and in a poignant moment, called out “Mama, it’s up to you now.” The tears belonged to Kim Davis.

I witnessed intense athletic endeavor and tension. At the softball venue in a game between Iowa and Venezuela, both benches emptied after a collision between a base runner and fielder. It appeared to observers that an ugly international incident might be at hand – but both teams merely wanted to congratulate hard play and to make certain that everyone was unhurt.

I saw determination. Athletes are charged with signing the scorecard after each bocce contest. I watched the Jamaican, Coy Barker, take the pen in his hand made inflexible by cerebral palsy and begin what became the arduous task of writing his name. It seemed to take him longer to autograph the scorecard than it did to play the game, but he persisted. Coy re-adjusted the pen in his hand several times, doodled to get the ink flowing, made several false starts, and labored over each cursive letter – but finally, satisfied with the result, proudly handed me the signed card.

And I encountered some poor sportsmanship on the part of athletes and coaches. Why shouldn’t the negative aspects of sports be here as well as the positive?


The next World Summer Games are slated for Ireland in 2003. It will be the first time the games will be hosted outside the USA. They’ll use Dublin University and Point Theatre and other venues. Will I be there? I’m not sure what to make of all these criticisms of Special Olympics. Most make good sense to me. They come from bright and experienced people – those in the trenches, so to speak. Special Olympics organizers need to listen and to work more closely with these well-meaning critics. But, my instincts tell me that I was part of something very special in North Carolina. It is something I definitely want more of, and, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back!” if they’ll have me.

Click here to see more photos: 1999 Special Olympics

Much Success!
The Bocce Guy

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