First Lady Michelle Obama has had the pleasure of attending many spectacular events, but I would venture to guess that opening the 14th Special Olympics World Games at the end of July had to rank with the most inspirational.
It wasn’t because of the musical performances, fireworks, or even the flaming torch that was carried from Greece.
It was all about the athletes.
Almost 50 years after Eunice Kennedy Shriver decided to take her backyard competitions to an international level, the Games were the largest gathering of athletes in Los Angeles since the 1984 Summer Olympics.
The first Special Olympics was held in 1968 in Chicago, with 1,000 athletes and about 100 people in the stands. For the Los Angeles event, nearly 7,000 athletes representing 177 countries participated in tennis, soccer, swimming, equestrian events, weight-lifting, and even a triathlon, to name a few. Competition is open to athletes eight years and older who have intellectual disabilities that result in limitations in cognitive functions or other skills. To qualify for the world games, athletes must compete in sanctioned regional competitions.
Los Angeles World Games President and CEO Pat McClenahan, himself an Emmy-award winning sports producer, understood how the power of television could bring the group’s message and mission to a world audience. He found a willing partner in ESPN. “This was an unprecedented TV deal that was all about finding a broadcast partner who understood the goal – get the stories of these athletes in front of as many eyeballs as possible,” he said. “And once people see the courage and determination and joy, they’re all inspired.”
I hope you had the opportunity to watch the nightly highlight reels. Sports in their purest form.
ESPN’s Kate Jackson, head of production for daily shows, hired Dustin Plunkett, a four-time Special Olympics World Games athlete, as a reporter for the games. His job description was later upgraded to analyst.
“If you look at ESPN in how we cover anything, it’s hiring former athletes or coaches – those who have a voice that’s closest to the sport they are involved with – and in this case it’s no different,” Jackson said. “He inherently has a ton of knowledge that we don’t have about how this all works. Dustin will make us better.”
Dustin is a Global Messenger for the Games and on the World Games 2015 board of directors. His personal story is an inspiration in itself. Born with an intellectual disability and a cleft palate that affected his speech, he came from an unstable home life and moved around from different homes and family members. He competed in a number of sports and won awards. And while many athletes will say the games made a big difference in their lives, Dustin can say that the Special Olympics literally saved his life.
Ten years ago he was able to take part in the Healthy Athletes program, which offers a seven-point check-up. A volunteer dentist discovered that he had gum cancer and helped treat the disease. “I never knew how fortunate and blessed that I would be when joining the Special Olympics,” Dustin said. “Everyone thinks it’s just sports, but to me it is sports and so much more. If it had been one month longer, I wouldn’t be alive today showing off my million-dollar smile.”
Many of the inspirational stories will not even be related to sports. Kimberly Jasmine Guillen, who goes by “Kimpossible,” is a 16-year-old Global Messenger who has won 69 medals competing in bowling and track and field. “I thought I was joining a team, but instead I realized that I joined a family,” she said. “Every athlete is like a brother or sister to me. Ever since I joined Special Olympics, I never want to give up on anything.”
McClenahan hopes this message will resonate: “When people come in contact with our athletes or see our athletes perform, their perceptions change drastically. The greatest thing we can do for those with intellectual disabilities is to change the hearts and minds of people without intellectual disabilities so that kids befriend them in school; employers realize their great value and hire them for jobs – those real life-changing things.”
Local Special Olympics organizations are always looking for help. If you are looking for a volunteer opportunity that is both inspiring and rewarding, I highly recommend the Special Olympics.
Mackay’s Moral: I can’t improve on the Special Olympics oath, “Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.”