Special Olympics by Abby Ford

Every two years, the global community unites over one simple task: the familiar crowding around nearby televisions to support one’s country in either the Summer or Winter Olympics. While the Olympic games are part of everyone’s routine bi-annually, whether through watching with intent or solely turning on the television for background noise whilst performing other chores or activities, an equally important athletic competition of similar magnitude is granted less attention and excitement: the Special Olympics.

Occuring every two years opposite to the Olympic Games, the Special Olympics concluded competitions for the 2019 Games on March 21. The event lasted one week, beginning on the 14th in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Special Olympics 2019 consisted of over 7,000 athletes from around the world, 170 countries to be precise. Additionally, the Games featured summer sport competitions, athletes competing in a variety of 24 different events. Not only athletically significant, the 2019 Abu Dhabi Special Olympic Games featured the groundbreaking world progress towards those with intellectual disabilities, this years Games being the first ever held in the Middle East/ North Africa region.

As Olympic World Games, the Special Olympics features athletic prowess at the top level. This year, there were several highlights worth noting, as many were unable to watch due to its timing over March break. Quite possibly one of the greatest feats of the Special Olympics 2019 was India’s world-record setting medal tally of 368, including 85 gold, 154 silver, and 129 bronze. India’s stellar performance in Abu Dhabi wrote history, raising the bar for athletic competition even higher. Additionally, the United States competitors returned home with no shortage of hardware, the country winning a combined 203 medals: 71 gold, 61 silver, and 71 bronze.

To provide background into the history of the Special Olympics, it is important to note the purpose the games serve, as well as the circumstances one might face having the qualifications to participate. The Special Olympics is a non-profit organization existing to bring awareness to intellectual disabilities, as well as to erase the various stigmas associated with such conditions. The first Special Olympic World Games were held in 1968 in Chicago, Illinois. Historically, especially in this time period, adults and children with intellectual disabilities were encouraged, and even required, to live sheltered and restricted lives, usually constrained by the comfort of their own homes. Said individuals were completely isolated from not only their local communities, but from the global community as well, sparking a desire to bring awareness to the neglect and suffering those with intellectual disabilities were forced to grapple with in private. The 1968 Chicago Special Olympic Games immediately de-stigmatized intellectual disabilities, portraying those affected in a positive light as opposed to the one cast prior.

The Special Olympics defines an intellectual disability as, “A term used when a person has certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social and self-care skills. These limitations can cause a child to develop and learn more slowly or differently than a typically developing child. Intellectual disability can happen any time before a child turns 18 years old, even before birth.” Individuals qualify for diagnosis of an intellectual disability if he or she has an IQ lower than 70-75, faces extreme limitations in two or more adaptive areas (for example a social skill or self-care responsibility), and experienced the condition prior to the age of 18. Examples of intellectual disabilities include Fragile X Syndrome, Down Syndrome, and Autism, to simply name a few. While such conditions may seem rare, or more difficult to encounter on a daily basis, 6.5 million people in the United States alone have an intellectual disability, compared to the 200 million diagnosed worldwide. Because millions of people face such circumstances globally, the Special Olympics serves as a platform to experience sports and athletics through a lens portrayed previously as only available to mentally able individuals, something that has been clearly disproved.