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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 18:27 GMT 19:27 UK
Special athletes set for Shanghai
Martin Conaghan
By Martin Conaghan

Special Olympics
159 athletes will represent Britain at the Special Olympics in Shanghai

"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Those were the words of Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the Opening Ceremony of the first Special Olympics, held at Chicago's Soldier Field in July 1968.

The phrase is now the motto for the Special Olympics movement.

Over 1,000 athletes from 26 US states and Canada competed in that first event, which featured sports ranging from athletics to floor hockey and an assortment of aquatic sports.

Shriver, the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, was the originator and founder of the Special Olympics movement back in 1962.

Her sister, the late Rosemary Kennedy, suffered from an intellectual impairment, and is often credited as the inspiration for the creation of the games.

"It will be an opportunity for China to demonstrate to the world that they are taking steps to improve the quality of life for their most disadvantaged citizens."

From 2-11 October, the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games will take place in Shanghai, China.

It will be 45 years since Shriver first put forward the notion of a regular sporting event designed to give disadvantaged people an opportunity to gain confidence, improve their fitness and become respected members of society.

The Shanghai event will mark the first time the World Summer Special Games have been held in Asia, and only the second time they have been held outside of North America.

China's largest city will host 7,500 athletes from 160 countries, and the organisers expect the scheduled events to attract 40,000 volunteers, 3,500 officials and thousands of families, spectators and journalists from every continent.

It will be as much a prelude to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing as an opportunity for China to demonstrate to the world that they are taking steps to improve the quality of life for their most disadvantaged citizens.

I will be attending the Games in Shanghai as part of a BBC Scotland television documentary team, with a specific remit to cover proceedings for readers of the BBC Sport website.

The Special Olympics athletes compete to win

It's a unique assignment, as I will be the only embedded member of BBC staff in Shanghai providing content for the web.

In recent weeks, when I've explained to my friends and family why I'm making the trip to Shanghai, their reactions have invariably centred on questions about sprinters with missing limbs, basketball players who use wheelchairs and one-armed javelin throwers.

It's an innocent enough misapprehension to confuse the Special Olympics with the Paralympics - a quadrennial, elite multi-sport event for athletes with physical, mental and sensorial disabilities, held in parallel with the Summer Olympic Games (hence the 'para' prefix).

But the Special Olympics is an entirely different event altogether.

Where the Paralympics centres on athletes who largely suffer from physical impairments, the Special Games are all about people overcoming intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics athletes often suffer from problems as varied as Down's Syndrome, profound deafness, severe head injuries or behavioural problems.

The Scottish contingent, which makes up almost half of the British team, includes a judo player who suffered a serious head injury as a teenager, a showjumper with chronic claustrophobia and an athlete who doesn't speak unless he is playing badminton.

"The Scottish contingent consists of a showjumper with chronic claustrophobia and an athlete who doesn't speak unless he is playing badminton."

Simply travelling to Shanghai will be a challenge for many of the competitors; but participating in the events will require levels of strength, courage and determination that most able-bodied athletes take for granted.

It would only trivialise the Special Olympics to wheel out the old 'it's not the winning that counts' cliché, but participation is one of the most important components of the Special Olympics philosophy.

Participation brings its own rewards for the athletes, coaches, their family members and carers, but winning will play a big part for the individuals travelling to Shanghai.

Let us not forget that the Special Olympics athletes compete in sporting events for the same fundamental reason anyone else does; to win.

It would be a pointless exercise otherwise, and I'm looking forward to my own personal challenge of helping to raise the profile of a truly remarkable global event in my own small way.

And if you're curious about the etymology of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Special Olympics motto, it was the mantra of Roman gladiators before they stepped out in to the Coliseum to fight for their lives.

Images from the Special Olympics
29 Sep 07 |  Disability Sport


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