With the drama of the 21st Summer Games set to unfold in Beijing this August, the power of example will be centre stage as athletes from around the world converge on the Chinese capital in search of Olympic glory. With so many amazing stories to be told over 16 days of sporting events, it isn’t hard to find inspiration against the backdrop of global competition.
Finding a similar inspiration in the Special Olympics events being held in the United States nearly half a century ago, Dr. Frank Hayden and legendary sports broadcaster Harry “Red” Foster established the first Special Olympics Games in Canada in 1969. They launched Special Olympics Canada (SOC), a governing body dedicated to enriching the lives of Canadians with an intellectual disability through the power of sport.
Now a member of a global organization that boasts over 2.5 million athletes in more than 150 countries, SOC has a comprehensive mandate that is a model for how to include disadvantaged people in our society. It aims to provide all athletes with choices in their opportunity to train and to compete; to be accessible to all athletes with an intellectual disability; to be a change agent for social inclusion-providing all athletes with opportunities for integration through sport; and to be recognized as an integral part of the sport delivery system by partnering with sport organizations.
“It is a very exciting time for us here in Canada,” says Deborah Bright, President and CEO of SOC, “especially as we have just released a new strategic plan, which will guide us in our growth as an organization over the next seven years. It is aimed at developing participation among athletes, coaches and volunteers, as well as increasing financial stability and public awareness, and ensuring greater co-operation among the different chapters across the country.”
Of the estimated 800,000 Canadians currently living with an intellectual disability, only 31,500 are actively involved with the Special Olympics. “Our hope is to bring that figure up by 7% annually over the next decade,” says Bright. “It isn’t going to happen overnight, but we are optimistic we can continue to get the word out there and keep growing our numbers. We are already headed in the right direction.”
By way of example, she cites the success of the organization’s National Winter Games this past February in Quebec. “We had over 900 athletes and coaches from across the country competing in curling, snowshoeing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, floor hockey, figure skating and speed skating,” says Bright. “Many of them are going to represent us at the World Winter Games next year in Idaho.”
It was the first time the Special Olympics Games have been held in la belle province. “The organizers in Quebec City put together an incredible week,” adds Bright. “Ideally, we would love to see that kind of enthusiasm from every region of the country on a more regular basis.”
Currently, Nova Scotia is the only province in the country to hold annual events. This year, the province’s Special Olympics Summer Games were held in June at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Over 700 contestants and volunteers took part in a variety of sports, including athletics, soccer, bowling and aquatics. “We look forward to this all year long,” says Michael Greek, President and CEO of Special Olympics Nova Scotia. “It is always great fun for all of us, but don’t kid yourself-things can get pretty heated out there sometimes. Everyone involved takes it very seriously and some of these events can be extremely competitive.”
That level of competitiveness will be even more evident next year, when athletes from across the region compete for the opportunity to represent their respective provinces at the National Championships in London, Ontario in 2010. From there, a team will be chosen to represent Canada at the World Championships in Athens, Greece, in 2011.
At present, Nova Scotia has close to 1,300 Special Olympians, while New Brunswick has 800, Newfoundland-Labrador 600, and Prince Edward Island 400. Although those are fairly good numbers by national standards, especially considering Atlantic Canada’s smaller population base, Greek feels more has to be done to get younger people involved.
“Our biggest challenge right now is attracting kids who are 15 years of age and under,” he says. “Our hope in the coming years is to make a better effort to reach out to families across the region and remind them of the wonderful opportunities that we can offer their children in terms of physical fitness, competition, self-esteem, friendship and a sense of belonging to a broader community.”
Along with the need for more recruitment, Greek says the Special Olympic community can always use the help of a few more volunteers. “We are looking for individuals who are interested in working behind the scenes: coaches, trainers, coordinators, billets and especially on-site at our events and activities.”
Like most other not-for-profit organizations across the country, however, the biggest ongoing issue remains financing. “We only get about 17% of our annual operating budget from government sources,” says Greek. “That means we rely heavily upon sponsorship from the private sector, along with public donations and funding drives to make up the difference. And as fundraising has become increasingly competitive between groups like ours in recent years, we are always looking for new ways and means to access more money.”
Deborah Bright agrees. “We are adapting,” she says. “Like everyone else, we are forced to do more with less these days. Still, at the end of the day, for those of us who are involved with the Special Olympics, it isn’t all about the money. We do what we do because we want to make a difference in the lives of others, and by giving back to our own community we are ultimately giving back to ourselves and creating a powerful example for future generations.”