I had a conversation recently with someone whose sister has been competing internationally in Special Olympics. I found myself becoming a little defensive and angry because she kept saying that it would be really good if the Special Olympics and the Paralympic and Olympic Games were held at the same time as Paralympians and Olympians could really learn a lot from Special Olympic athletes. She went on to say that Special Olympic athletes are not focused on winning but on the process and on relationships with other athletes. I found this conversation quite unsettling because I have always been offended when someone mistakenly introduces me as an athlete who is trying to qualify for the Special Olympics. I realize that this sounds very disrespectful to Special Olympic athletes. That is not my intent. I believe that both types of athletes are to be respected but I think the focus of each athlete is different.
I am a paraplegic athlete who has just qualified to go to the Paralympic Games in London this fall. I have worked very hard to get to this point and I plan to continue to work very hard to do well and hopefully come home from the London games with a medal. That is my goal; to do well and be the best that I can be. So the Paralympic goal could be summed up as wanting to achieve athletic excellence. Correct me if I am wrong, but the marketing for Special Olympics gives the impression that the goal of Special Olympic athletes is more about participation and socializing and achieving a feeling of accomplishment by way of participating. Quotes from the Special Olympics Canada website back this idea up. It states:
The powerful social benefits of sport are of particular importance to people with an intellectual disability because one of the first effects of their disability is social isolation. For many Special Olympic athletes, training sessions become the source and the nourishment of their deepest friendships.
And another quote,
For many, Special Olympics is the only place where they find an opportunity to participate in their communities, develop belief in themselves, and feel like champions.
There is nothing wrong with having this kind of focus — just as there is nothing wrong with me wanting my focus to be perhaps more ego driven. But don’t confuse me with an athlete who is driven by a desire for inclusion when my goal is completely different.
Joan training hard on Swan Lake near Vernon, BC.
I always feel like I am being condescended too when someone thinks that I am going to the Special Olympics. And I have always felt bad about that because I then felt that I was also being condescending. But I am working hard because I have a goal of winning a medal. There is nothing wrong with having that goal just as there is nothing wrong with a Special Olympic athlete having a goal of cultivating relationships and being able to participate in sport. When someone calls me a Special Olympian, I feel as if they are down playing the fact that I take my sport very seriously and have put the rest of my life on hold while I attempt to achieve my goal. It sounds like they are saying “good for you” with a pat on the head, without really considering how much effort has gone into this pursuit. I am not racing to get a participation ribbon. I want to achieve a medal because I worked hard to be the best that I could possibly be.
This brings another point into play. As long as I have had a disability, there have been people who see me as disabled first and then as a person. And along with that there has been the misconception that there must also be something wrong with me cognitively as well. I have no idea why some people make that leap but never-the-less, the leap gets made over and over. So maybe I am a bit defensive to start with.
My previously mentioned friend thinks that sport is very ego driven and much could be learned from Special Olympic athletes. I believe this is true. But I also don’t feel it is wrong to be involved in sport because my ego might be driving me to be the best I can possibly be. Everyone has their own reason for what they do. The nature of each disability and the respective goals for participation makes each organization different. That does not mean that one is greater than the other. Not at all! It just means we are different and neither one of us wants to be mistaken for the other.
Competition/sport is good. There is so much to be learned from sport. Sport helps to socialize us. It helps us learn coordination in our bodies. It helps us stay healthy. It keeps our minds healthy and more positive. Every person should have the right to participate on their own terms and each person deserves to be respected.