Having had the privilege of working at a Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, and Youth Olympic Games you could say that I take my passion for the Olympics very seriously. Beginning with an internship at the US Olympic Committee out of college, I fell in love with The Olympic Movement for all the cliché reasons. I love the athlete stories, the triumph of sport over politics, and even the obscure sports that are only highlighted once every four years (here’s looking at you Modern Pentathlon). With that said, I came into my first Special Olympic World Games experience without truly understanding the scale and scope of this event. This quickly changed and my experience at these games goes toe-to-toe with any of my other Olympic experiences. Here is why:
The 2015 Special Olympic World Games were the biggest event to hit Los Angeles since the 1984 Summer Olympics by a long margin. With 6,500 athletes from 165 countries competing in 27 events this event is more than double the size of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In addition, with all events free to the public media outlets put the total spectator size at over 500,000 during the course of the games.
As with many Olympians, the athletes at these games all brought different and incredible stories to the event. However, each of the 6,500 athletes has also overcome the pervasive negative stigmas felt around the world toward those with intellectual disabilities. And yet, the positivity and enthusiasm displayed regardless of the event results was nothing short of breathtaking. In addition, the term ‘athlete’ is not simply given to these competitors because they are participating in a sport.
Many of these athletes take training as seriously as any Olympian and have even graduated into professional sports. Their athletic prowess became readily apparent as I watched my first live handball match featuring the speed, agility, strength, and physicality of any sport.
As an avid consumer of all sports media, I was thrilled to see daily Special Olympic World Games coverage featured on all traditional media outlets and especially ESPN. Cameras could be seen covering all events with athletes giving interviews following the final result. This is a critical step in legitimizing and popularizing unified sports and the inclusion of the intellectually disabled community.
Throughout both the Summer and Winter Olympics a unified message has been lost somewhere between corporate sponsorship and budget overruns. This is far from the case for the Special Olympic World Games as inclusion, sportsmanship, and perseverance are seen and felt through all aspects of the games. The phrase Rise Up was commonly heard by athletes, organizers, and spectators with the corresponding response of putting your hands in the air.
More powerfully was watching the Olympic Flame enter the USC Coliseum as an Iranian passed to an Israeli, who passed to a Cuban who passed to an American athlete. This clear message of world unity and inclusion is rarely seen in a continually polarizing world and would be much too divisive for the IOC.