22nd March 2019

The importance of the Special Olympics for disability sport

Team GB’s athletes had great success at the Paralympic Games in London back in 2012, and at the time, it seemed as though disability sport was making a real breakthrough. That was not just in terms of overall recognition, but also in the form of improved funding and a noticeable uplift in participation. Unfortunately, just a few years later it seems that this spike in interest and activity has not been sustained.

Participation in disability sports has dropped by an estimated ten percent since 2012, with feedback revealing that a focus on finding future Paralympians has left local sporting facilities lacking. As a result, many people with physical and intellectual disabilities are still finding that their sporting ambitions are held back, predominantly by the continuing scarcity of clubs and basic facilities. 

Taking part in sporting activities is a great way for anyone to improve self-esteem and wellbeing, regardless of their supposed limitations. It can be a confidence boost, as well as a crucial part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For these reasons and more, keeping the spotlight on disability sport and campaigning for better facilities for everyday people nationwide should be seen as vital.

The 2019 Special Olympics

The Special Olympics World Summer Games have just taken place in Abu Dhabi, where 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches from 168 countries gathered to compete and to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople with intellectual disabilities. This year’s event was the largest in the 50-year history of the Special Olympics, and offers an international pedestal to athletes who might otherwise fly under the radar.

Just like the Olympics and Paralympics, the event begins with a spectacular opening ceremony and sees athletes competing in a diverse array of sporting contests, from athletics and cycling, to powerlifting and open water swimming. But the Special Olympics World Games is also an opportunity to increase social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities, and for this reason is considered the largest combined humanitarian and sporting event in the world.

Making progress

The Special Olympic programme is reliant on volunteers, and outside of the Games itself is a movement that prides itself on ensuring that all people can be involved in sports, regardless of any disability. According to the charity Mind, only 1-in-6 disabled people regularly play sport compared to a typical average of 1-in-3 in the wider population. This makes clear the need for organisations like the Special Olympics that help people to overcome societal barriers and share in the wide-reaching benefits that exercise and teamwork can bring. 

In Britain, around 1.5 million people have an intellectual disability. Within this group, some 10,000 sessions for 28 sports are coached all year-round. While it may not be as high-profile as the Paralympics, increased awareness around the Special Olympics is an opportunity to boost these figures and reverse the downward trend in participation that has occurred since 2012.

There are an estimated 200 million people around the world who could also potentially benefit from similar sessions, and it’s hoped that bringing the Games to the Middle East for the first time will help to put this event in front in the widest possible international audience. The aim: to inspire people from all over the world who otherwise might not have taken up a sport.

Looking forwards

As important as the immediacy of improved awareness and participation in disability sports is, the potential impact on future generations is also tremendously valuable. Many children with disabilities can be left seeing themselves as ‘other’ – isolated, however slightly, from their peers by the perceived restrictions of their differences. 

If children and young people are able to see Britain’s 129 Special Olympics athletes compete across 17 sports on an international stage, it could be the springboard they need to get involved themselves. There is potential for momentum to really build across Great Britain in coming years, with Home Nation athletes also keen to take part in the Special Olympics GB Games in 2021, which will be held in Liverpool.

Sports manufacturer and supplier to major events, including London 2012, Harrod Sport are excited at the potential for growth in intellectual disability sports. “The Special Olympics are an important event, not least for the sporting competition, but also because they demonstrate the values of acceptance and inclusivity on the global stage”, said Harrod Sport Executive Kate Pasque. “With the prospect of a ‘home Games’ in 2021, interest in getting involved with sports could continue to rise for the next few years, especially among children. Sport is for all and we are excited to see that belief demonstrated in this incredible event.”

While a lack of funding will always be a challenge, the key to increasing sporting participation in Britain is in sustaining interest far beyond the conclusion of the Summer Games. “There is no guarantee that interest in the event will be enough to encourage the development of international-level athletes alone”, Pasque continues, “but it could help to build something far more valuable – a generation of young people who are positive about themselves, their sport and do not allow their disability to restrict what they can achieve”.

• This article was supplied to The Sports Integrity Initiative as an advertorial.

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