I was privileged that my college hosted, every Fall, the largest student-run Special Olympics festival in the world. During that annual weekend, thousands of athletes and coaches descended upon our campus from every county in Pennsylvania. My freshman year, I was a “Local Program Host” (LPH), or a designated student volunteer who spent the entire festival guiding, supporting and cheering for athletes from a particular county. My team traveled from Clinton County, almost three and a half hours away, to compete in the games.
I could spend pages recounting great memories from that weekend – among them, an exciting finals run for the Clinton County volleyball team – but this week’s extensive coverage of the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles is providing plenty of storytelling and inspiration. Instead, as I remember my Special Olympics experience, I recall the weeks of training and meetings we attended as LPHs. One key lesson, our mentors explained, was not to think of the visiting athletes as “kids,” as many are inclined. (In fact, they range greatly in age.)
Instead, the Special Olympics competitors are simply considered athletes. Not “kids,” “young athletes,” “handicapped,” nor any other term that would distance those competitors from their peers at various levels of play. Their abilities differ, yes, but their spirit and desire to participate and succeed in competition match and often exceed athletes from other walks of life. Special Olympians are, in the truest sense of the word, athletes.
It may seem like only a matter of semantics, but I was reminded of our LPH training when I read Pope Francis’ recent address to the athletes of Special Olympics Italy. He writes:
Sport is a very suitable path for this discovery, to open ourselves, to go outside of our own walls and get in the game. This is how we learn to participate, to overcome, to struggle together. And all this helps us to become active members of society and also of the Church; and it helps society itself and the Church to overcome all forms of discrimination and exclusion.
Pope Francis’ words speak to a unique property of sport, one which promotes inclusion regardless of age, ability, demographic, or any other typical personal identifier. As the athletes continue through this week of competition, I’d encourage viewers to follow the games with the perspective that Special Olympians are athletes in the exact same way that Stephen Curry or Mike Trout are athletes. They enter their competitions with focus, ambition, and hope, melding together their physical training with a desire to compete and a joy at the opportunity to do so. Their experience is that of sport at its most fundamental level and, like sports the world over, it is simply their ability to compete, to strive for achievement and celebrate their triumphs and those of their peers, that make them true athletes.