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Finding Unity Through Sports at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games

The numbers for the 2015 Special Olympic World Games in Los Angeles are out of this world: 

19 venues.
26 sports.
165 countries.
2,000 coaches.
6,500 athletes.
30,000 volunteers.
And 500,000+ spectators.

From Albania and Myanmar to Zambia and Zimbabwe, competitors from around the globe have come together to compete in sports like aquatics, kayaking, and volleyball.

The games kicked off on Saturday with a four-hour extravaganza that included speeches, poems, videos, and performances from people including President Barack Obama (via video), First Lady Michelle Obama (in person!), NBA star Damian Lillard, and Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. The heart of the program was the Parade of Athletes. Delegations from all the countries entered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to the cheering crowd of 62,338.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the ceremony was when Charles — who competed in Special Olympics as a child — led the athletes’ oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” 

Excitement over the opening ceremonies was clear among the athletes and coaches I met on the first full day of competition on Sunday. Some loved the music, others loved the Olympic torch. For Donna Schneider, coach of the U.S. boys’ basketball team, the best moment was “walking into the stadium to the roar of ‘U.S.A.’” 

After the grand and public opening on Saturday, Sunday was a day to shift to quieter, more focused practice and competition mode. When I went to watch the table tennis, badminton, bocce, handball and basketball competitions, I saw a mix of adult and younger athletes and people from every country I could imagine. 

The women’s handball competition kicked off with Uruguay beating India, 22-6. It was a fast-paced game with lots of excitement. Yoselin Pereira established herself quickly as a star for Uruguay, scoring 17 out of the 22 goals for her country. In men’s handball, Germany defeated Kenya, 21-15. 

At the table tennis, badminton, and bocce venues, the main focus on Sunday morning was warm up play and practice. I got to see a number of great players rallying back and forth. Two table tennis groups stood out to me as being particularly promising: the teams from the Czech Republic and China.  

Take a look at a warm up, practice rally among the Chinese table tennis players:

While chatting with the Czech squad, I got my first exposure to one of the most fun traditions at the games: the exchange of pins. If you have ever been to the Olympics, or a Special Olympics World Games, you are probably familiar with the pin swap. People bring pins from their home country and trade them for pins from other countries. It is a great way to break the ice and show kindness to another person. It becomes sort of a friendship currency at the Games that brings people together.

After shaking hands, the Czech coach took a Czech Republic pin off his badge necklace and offered it to me with a big smile. I saw similar exchanges like this throughout the day. 

There was quite a bit of energy around the bocce warm ups on Sunday. I had the chance to interview U.S. coach James Price and American bocce competitor Carol Maricle. Price has been coaching since his college days and has participated in Special Olympics World Games in the past. He said that the goals for the week are for the athletes to have fun and to do the best that they can. Maricle, who practices once a week, seemed excited for the competition. 

It was also hard to miss the enthusiasm generated by the U.S. basketball team, which traveled to the Games from their home base in New York. Schneider explained to me that the U.S. basketball squad is a “unified team,” meaning that five athletes on the team are Special Olympics athletes and five are not. When the team plays there are three Special Olympics athletes on the court and two “partner” athletes. They play together as a unit. The partner athletes serve as role models for the Special Olympics athletes and help bring up the level of play.

“There are times on the court when you don’t know which are Special Olympics athletes and which are partners,” Schneider said. She added that the team “has bonded like a family now and they look out for each other and they take care of each other.“

Everyone at the Games wants to win a medal, right? I conducted many, many interviews with coaches and athletes and pretty much everyone said that that was one of their goals.

But there was one interview that was different — really different.

Coming off his team’s 11-4 victory against Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabian boys basketball coach Muhthil Alajmi surprised me by answering my question on his goals for the week by replying, “Peace.”

“I want a friendly tournament where we can meet people and make peace,” he added. After that, Alajmi reached into his pocket and handed me two small pins: one is the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other says “Special Olympics Saudi Arabia.” 

Shaking his hand at the end of the interview, I was struck by how amazing it was that an 11-year-old American girl had the opportunity to meet and learn from so many incredible athletes from around the world.

For me, the games are about bringing people together, delegation by delegation, sport by sport, team by team, athlete by athlete. It’s these small, personal connections that make the Special Olympics World Games such an incredible event and help make the world a better place. 

Photos: Isabel Gomez

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