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Special Olympics Article Illustration Special Olympics World Games

The 9,000 mile Torch Run through Europe, the lighting of the cauldron and opening ceremonies with 85,000 athletes, volunteers and spectators are all part of what philanthropic event that draws the attention of the entire world? The Special Olympics World Summer Games held this year in Dublin, Ireland. Competitions were held in a variety of venues throughout Ireland, providing both the athletes and spectators the opportunity to enjoy some of the top athletic and historical facilities in Europe. This was the first time the World Summer Games had ever been held outside the United States.

The Special Olympics is a world-wide sports movement founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, which provides year-round sports training and athletic competition to more than one million people with mental retardation. Thirty years after its inception, the Games are now active in over 160 countries throughout the world. Celebration, competition and camaraderie were three elements that inspired the participants. All who were involved agree the affair was an unbridled success!

This year's theme, Share the Feeling, motivated the more than 7,000 athletes that converged on the Emerald Isle to compete in 18 sports varying from badminton and cycling to gymnastics. Three additional sports were offered as demonstration sports: pitch and putt, kayaking and judo. The World Games kicked off with a rocking opening ceremony held in Dublin's famous Croke Park. The ceremony consisted of some of the world's most well-known performers such as U2, the Corrs and the largest Riverdance troupe ever assembled. Other famous celebrities supporting the Summer World Games included Muhammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Farrell, Pierce Brosnan, Heather Locklear and Jon Bon Jovi who were involved in everything from walking with the athletes to signing autographs and posing for pictures.

Plenty of political heavyweights were at the opening ceremony as both Ireland's President Mary McAleese and Prime Minister Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were on hand to welcome the athletes and volunteer participants to their country. Former South African President Nelson Mandela, a longtime Special Olympics supporter, helped declare the Games open. There was even a message from Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin: "Sports unites people, builds up their courage, stamina and persistence, but mainly brings the happiness of unforgettable victories and communication with friends. I believe that the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games will give the athletes a new influx of cheerfulness and energy, and the attention and support of fans will bring them more confidence in their own abilities. I wish you new victories, success and all the best."

For Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the journey to Ireland was not only for the Games, it was a long awaited homecoming. "Forty years later I am proud to have returned home to Ireland," said Shriver. "I am even more proud to come to this stadium tonight to the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, to a place where people with intellectual disabilities no longer have to be ashamed or afraid to live their dreams."

The opening ceremonies ended with the traditional lighting of the cauldron by 16-year-old Special Olympics athlete David McCauley from Ireland. Once the Flame of Hope arrived, the cauldron was lit and the Games began. But, just like the athletes, the flame had a journey of its own on its way to the Games.

The fascinating journey of the Torch Run began with the traditional lighting ceremony on the sacred site of the Pnyx, at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The ceremony is conducted according to the standards and rituals set up by the ancient Greeks for their athletic competitions. Special Olympics athletes—dressed in traditional garb—acted out the ceremony, and the flame was ignited using a mirror to focus the sun's rays. The Hellenic President was just one of the many dignitaries on hand for the lighting ceremony. The torch was then run past some of the greatest sites in all civilization, such as the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus, before traveling through Europe and arriving in Dublin to mark the beginning of the Special Olympic Games.

Every two years, law enforcement officers from around the world take time off from their important duties to run the tour. Some might say this year's Torch Run was three times as good as in previous years because the flame ran through three different routes on the continent. The runners traveled through Europe's most fabled and historic cities including Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, Istanbul and Prague. Along the routes, the people of Europe opened their hearts and doors to the runners. Many towns held special welcoming ceremonies where the runners were warmly greeted by local dignitaries. Other events held along the routes included special concerts, community runs and sporting events.

More than 9,000 miles were covered by 93 law enforcement officers and ten Special Olympics athletes, making this run one of the longest in Special Olympics history. Since the first run, more than 85,000 officers have carried the Flame of Hope across 35 nations throughout the world.

For all the festivities and events surrounding the World Games, it's still first and foremost about the athletes. For them there was plenty of what makes sports great—overcoming obstacles, competition and camaraderie. There are now 1.2 million athletes taking part in Special Olympics worldwide, an increase of 22 percent since 2000. The favorite sport for athletes remains track and field with nearly three quarters of all athletes competing in the top five Special Olympic sports: bowling, basketball, football, aquatics and track and field.

In addition to athletic competition, the Special Olympics is dedicated to increasing the awareness surrounding the treatment and lifestyles of people with disabilities. Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics chairman and CEO, addressed the concern of inclusion and behavior toward people with disabilities at a Global Youth Forum held in conjunction with the World Games. Two-student teams from 17 countries converged to discuss how people interact with people with disabilities and how these relationships can be enhanced and strengthened. Each team consisted of a Special Olympics athlete and a typical (able-bodied) partner.

Shriver opened the Forum by declaring, "Something has to change. That's why we're here. The question is: what are we going to do? How are we going to change?" For the next hour, the attendees discussed this and other issues, such as bullying, and how young people can lead the way to include persons with disabilities.

Colin Farrell explained the motivation behind his involvement, "Every person on the planet wants to feel like they're a good person and that they can do right by their fellow man." He also seized the opportunity to practice his backhand when he played several games of tennis with athletes from Austria, Great Britain and the USA. Excited about the opportunities Special Olympics offers to a community, Farrell noted, "It's just brought so much love to Dublin. I've seen kids in school uniforms and athletes together, making friends and talking about their dreams with each other. It's just been magic."

Reverend Run (Joseph Simmons) of the rap group Run-DMC commented on why more celebrities aren't involved in the Special Olympics, "People fear what they don't understand. It's not that people aren't ready to learn, it's just that they haven't been presented the opportunity. Special Olympics should reach out to more celebrities. I'm ready to change the whole world!"

Commenting on the lack of awareness or programs, the first lady of Poland, Jolanta Kwasniewska, encouraged politicians to participate more with people with disabilities. "I am really very proud that I have the chance to participate in these World Games. I think politicians should all spend more time with people with mental disabilities. I think this would be the solution."

One attendee, Ryan Atkinson from Anchorage, Alaska, was even able to tell Nelson Mandela about the difficulties of being a teen with a disability attending a public high school. "I've been teased from elementary school all the way to high school," he shared. "Getting teased is not cool. Sometimes, people get teased enough that they go home and commit suicide because they got teased too much."

Mandela helped the teens cope with harassment by responding, "It's a question of self-confidence and determination that you are going to lead a normal life and be able to compete with the best in the world."

The forum ended on a positive note, with many of the delegates expressing a renewed passion to spread the positive messages of the summit to their peers. Timothy Shriver challenged everyone who attended to find ways to enhance and promote the inclusion of those with mental retardation in all aspects of society. The forum was also broadcast to millions of people throughout Europe on MTV Europe.

Participants did more than just attend this one meeting. As representatives of the Special Olympics Global Youth Forum, they took part in a Journalism and Photojournalism 101 session where they received reporting tips from seasoned journalists. The teams then dispersed throughout the 22 different venues and wrote stories on various aspects of the Games to be published on the Special Olympics website for the purpose of raising awareness and encouraging inclusion and acceptance.

One of the most heartwarming stories that came out of the World Games is the story of the delegation from Afghanistan. From the ashes of this war-ravaged country, five brave Special Olympics athletes who struggled against incredible odds were chosen to compete. This was the first time Afghanistan had sent a team of delegates to any Special Olympics competition. It is also believed they were the first Afghani delegation to compete internationally at any sports event since 1996.

In the same stadium where the brutal Taliban regime used to hold mass executions, these determined young athletes trained to compete in athletics events, including the 100 and 200 meter run, long jump and other track and field-type events. Their head coach, Abdul Karim Azizi, will also coach the Afghani track and field team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

In a land where basic needs such as water and electrical services are incredibly scarce, the recognition, let alone the treatment of persons with mental retardation, is all but nonexistent. Children with developmental disabilities, frequently the most vulnerable in any society, are often abandoned at ramshackle orphanages, where many are left in empty rooms with little human contact or guidance. Three of the five athletes representing Afghanistan came from two orphanages in Kabul.

The father of Najila Agha Najila, a member of the Afghani delegation, can't afford to care for her, so she spends her days isolated in a room at an orphanage. During the Taliban regime, even the thought of having a female play on a sports team was punishable. Najila is believed to be the first Afghani female athlete to compete in many years. She competed in the 50 meter and 200 meter walk. Sardar, another teammate, was only three months-old when his family's house was bombed during the Russian invasion, killing his parents and burying him under three feet of rubble for two days. Using only his bare hands to remove the rubble, his grandfather rescued and cared for him. His grandfather died several years later, and Sardar was placed in an orphanage. At approximately age 10, Sardar stepped on a landmine, losing his right leg and permanently damaging his left foot. He gets along well with the aid of a plastic prosthesis for his right leg. He competed in the 200 meter run and the softball throw. Also from the Afghani delegation is Amin. Found by the Afghani police wandering alone and abandoned in the countryside, Amin was taken to an orphanage. Despite being teased by the other orphans for being called stupid, Amin always has a cheerful smile on his face. He competed in the 100 meter run and the 200 meter walk.

As you might imagine, going from a small, isolated country to the green fields and bright lights of the World Games might be too intimidating for many, but these athletes loved every minute of their time in Ireland. The highlight for most of them was walking into Croke Park at the Opening Ceremony, with tens of thousands of spectators cheering them on.

After a successful week of fantastic competition, it was time to say goodbye. The 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games closed on a high note, with several international music acts, including Westlife and Liberty X, bringing the remaining 75,000 athletes, volunteers and spectators to their feet. Video clips and interviews showcased the triumphs and joy of the athletes and actors Colin Farrell and Jamie Lee Curtis appeared to offer their congratulations to the athletes and their thanks to Ireland for setting a new standard for hospitality.

As the entertainment drew to a close, there was a ceremonial passing of the Special Olympics flag to Japan for the 2005 Winter Games and to China for the 2007 Summer Games. President McAleese declared the 2003 World Summer Games officially over, and the Flame of Hope was extinguished, bringing to a close a remarkable fortnight of competition and camaraderie.Even as the Flame of Hope was extinguished in Dublin, somewhere around the world it was being lit for a local, state, national or regional event. With more than 20,000 events held every year, the flame never really goes out.

Special Olympics would not exist today and could not have been created without the time, energy, commitment and enthusiasm of the more than 500,000 Special Olympics volunteers. Special Olympics relies on volunteers at all levels of the movement to ensure that every athlete is offered a quality sports training and the competitive experience.

The volunteer pool is dedicated and diverse. Volunteers include civic and fraternal groups, high school and college students, amateur and professional athletes, corporate employees, sports officials, coaches, teachers, parents and retired persons. Any person can get involved at the state/provincial, national or international level, or offer their services locally at a Special Olympics program in their community. Some volunteers offer a few hours of their time a year at specific events, while others work several hours a week year-round.

Those athletes, coaches, volunteers, family, friends and staff of the Special Olympics know first-hand the lifelong friendships and rewards of immeasurable value that come from participating. Special Olympics has become a global movement that is providing athletes with mental retardation an opportunity to experience the excitement, joy and personal fulfillment associated with sport training and competition.

by Richard Porter & Jennifer Melendres

For more Information

http://www.specialolympics.org

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