How Special Olympics Refreshed My Perspective
REACH up LA! These words continue to light up my heart whenever I recall the remarkable events I experienced at the Special Olympics 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles last July. Never in my dreams did I see myself participating in a sporting event this big or on the global stage – 6,500 athletes from 165 countries!
It all started sometime last year with an email from the Public Affairs & Communication (PAC) team at the Coca-Cola office in Nigeria, calling for volunteers for the Special Olympics 2014 National Games taking place in Lagos. At this stage, my perception of people with special needs was biased as I did not see how it was possible to have logical communication with them.
But I liked the idea of supporting them to enjoy the excitement of sports. So, since I enjoyed playing football in school, although I ended up mostly on the bench, I signed up along with others and chose to join the Unified Soccer team.
Unified Soccer, one of Special Olympics Unified Sports, is an inclusive 7-Aside game featuring players with intellectual disabilities (SO Athletes) and ordinary persons (Partner Athletes), designed to promote acceptance of the former and bring down discrimination and stigmatization that have become huge barriers to their social inclusion.
The mandatory practice and bonding sessions which qualified the Partner Athletes to play in the games required me to make lots of sacrifice, including extra hours to keep up with deadlines in the office and loss of personal time at weekends. But it was more fun than I expected. Unfortunately, I did not get to play in the national games, but I had so much fun cheering from the sidelines and wondering at the amazing quality of dribbles, tackles and shots by the same athletes we label as “disabled”.
By some odd stroke of luck, however, I was informed a few months later that I had been chosen as a Partner Athlete for the Special Olympics 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles, USA. As it turned out, a colleague who was chosen at the draw held during the National Games could not make the trip. I was excited and terrified at the same time for so many reasons. I was alarmed by the schedule of activities.
The intense drilling and fitness activities in the Pre-camp training was the welcome party I barely anticipated. Surprisingly, I begun communicating and bonding seamlessly with all the athletes sooner than I expected. We were without doubt determined to take on any challenge at the World Games.
The magnitude of applaud and standing ovation received from spectators and Special Olympics officials made me instantly realize that we were no ordinary sportsmen, we were indeed Olympians. The opening ceremony on the 25th of July was a truly remarkable event lit up by fireworks that spelt out the message “REACH UP LA!” The event featured many top dignitaries and celebrities including the wife of the US President, Michelle Obama. The central theme was acceptance and recognition for everyone with special needs anywhere in the world.
I had the opportunity to meet and interact with the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent; an uncommon privilege. He charged us to keep up with the great work so far and wished us the very best as Coca-Cola Ambassadors. We, Nigeria’s Unified Soccer team, won all our group stage matches and defeated Germany 1 – 0 in semi-finals making our way to the finals to play Russia. It was a very intense game that ended in penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw.
We took off our shirts, screamed and jubilated in a manner I cannot describe when we scored our last penalty kick defeating Russia 5-3. Reach up to someone special and that may just be the beginning of a lifetime experience for you.
So easily, the misperceptions and prejudice which I acquired over the years about people with intellectual disabilities evaporated in just a couple of weeks. I learnt some powerful life lessons to help me on my journey to becoming a better person. I have learnt that it is incredibly wrong to judge a person’s worth simply by the label society puts on them. From feeling the quality of soccer my teammates played, I have learnt that disability is a barrier that only exists in the mind.
I have learnt that persons with intellectual disabilities are truly remarkable human beings with innate abilities, dreams and a drive. They see the world in a truly unique and beautiful way. Once the initial barrier of communication can be crossed, you will be astonished at how truly loving, caring and friendly they are. I will always be grateful for this life-changing opportunity to interact and bond with many of these athletes at the games.
Experiences like this make me appreciate the true meaning and value of being a Coca-Cola Ambassador; and I would like to urge everyone who has the privilege to take some time off to volunteer for any of the many causes the company supports, preferably the Special Olympics movement. Spread the message: Reach UP, Humanity!
Osadolor of Coca-Cola Nigeria writes from Ikoyi, Lagos