“It is hard for me to put it into words what it means to be part of the Special Olympics World Games (...) it’s an exceptional experience of a lifetime and one that I will always remember”, says Roland Foerster, a 77-year-old competing in sailing at the Abu Dhabi Special Olympics World Games
Forerster does not have any intellectual disabilities (ID), but he got involved in this year’s Games through the Special Olympics' Unified Sports programme. The project is one of the most valuable pro-inclusion initiatives of the organisation, Jon-Paul St. Germain, Unified Sports and Sports Partnerships' Senior Director at the Special Olympics told Euronews.
The model consists of having teams composed of people with intellectual disabilities (known as ‘athletes’) and people without (called ‘partners’) to play sports together.
“It's great to be in this team, everybody is full of joy, my job is just to help, I love it, I really do. We just have fun together, it’s perfect,” says Nico Weiss, a 23-year-old partner from Germany.
How to take the Olympics home through Unified Sports
There are three levels within the Unified Sports programme, an introductory one: known as ‘Unified Recreation’, a middle-level ‘Unified Player Development’ and then the highest level, the one admitted in the Special Olympics: ‘Unified Competitive’.
Within the Recreation model, the goal is just to connect people with and without intellectual disabilities to play together in their local communities, regardless of their ability or age.
"You can do it as a one-day event, you could do it as a physical education class, or even as a community team," explains St. Germain. "The criteria is making sure you are inclusive in the manner of having at least 25% of people without disabilities and 25% of people with disabilities: within that you can move around.”
The highest ‘Unified Competitive’ level which participates at the Olympics has "fully competitive teams, that play with similar age, similar ability, with no rules modification,” he adds.
What makes a successful Unified team?
“Great teams play well together, and have roles that accentuate their strengths,” says Mike Bovino, Unified Sports Senior Advisor at the Special Olympics.
“The ultimate goal is social inclusion, athletes and partners come together as equal teammates and peers on the court of play.”
Bovino told Euronews that the initiative has proved to work as a mechanism to remove labels, “when you play together, train together, and compete as equals, you start the process of being able to see that people are unique to who they are. This is the same for those that watch Unified games: they gain a greater understanding from the quality that happens in the field of play.”
For a Unified team to be successful, Bovino says it is imperative to understand the philosophy, “here the aim is not to win at any cost. The aim is to win while you're meaningfully involving everyone. There’s a philosophical piece there, and when you sign up for it, whether you are an individual with an ID or not, you should understand it.”
The Unified legacy
“Unified Sports open great opportunities for Special Olympic athletes, as it gives them the chance to share life experiences with their Unified partners”.
Unified partners get so invested in the lives of their Athlete teammates that they often advocate for jobs for people with ID in their workplaces or among their friends, Bovino told Euronews.
But partners also benefit from the programme “it allows us to have a greater opportunity with individuals who show a different —ofter nicer— perspective of the world, and remind us the joy of participation. They bring above all: enlightenment.”