Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

So special

Egypt's Special Olympics team won its share of medals at the World Summer Games in Athens. Inas Mazhar reports from the Greek capital

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Around the Track

Egypt's special Olympians captured an overall 41 medals -- 13 gold, 16 silver and 12 bronze medals as the Games came to a close on Monday.

The winners were welcomed at the Egyptian Embassy in Athens and presented with certificates of appreciation for their efforts. Egypt's Ambassador to Athens Tarek Adel and his wife had been busy during the 10-day competition touring the venues and cheering the athletes on.

Middle East and North Africa regional managing director Ayman Abdel-Wahab was pleased with the results of the Egyptians and the rest of the Arab countries especially since many were taking part in the Games during the so-called Arab spring of people's revolts.

"The Egyptians did a very good job," Abdel-Wahab said. "After the revolution they had no facilities to train in. A new board was elected just a few weeks before they went to Athens. Had Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, not given instructions that the Egyptian athletes train in the military's stadiums and facilities, they wouldn't have been able to win all those medals. And because of these directives, EgyptAir provided the delegation with a special offer for the fares.

"The rest of the teams were also victorious, but the biggest harvest of medals came from the UAE which collected 50. Teams from Syria and Libya surprised us just by managing to cross the borders to leave their countries," said Abdel-Wahab who has been working closely with FIFA officials in order to claim four spots for the region in the newly-created Special Olympics World Cup scheduled to be held in Brazil in 2013.

Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics International Timothy Shriver and president of the organising committee for the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens Joanna Despotopoulou agreed that though Greece had seen violent protests because of the country's severe world financial fallout, the people led another kind of demonstration this week when 25,000 Greeks came together to join the Dignity Revolution, cheering for unity.

Volunteers from throughout Greece demonstrated their unwavering commitment to these Games despite formidable obstacles. Amidst city-wide transportation strikes, over 300 volunteers found their own way from Athens to the Glyfada Golf Course to enable the golf tournament to continue uninterrupted. And together with nearly 25,000 others, the volunteers provided the athletes with a world-class Olympic experience.

Greek medical professionals also joined the demonstration. They gave their time and resources to provide free health screenings to thousands of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Through the Healthy Athletes programme, thousands of eye glasses, mouth guards, hearing aids and health products have been distributed free of charge, and hundreds more athletes have been referred to doctors in their home countries for follow up care.

Members of the United Nations, UNICEF, FIFA, Sport Accord, and the International Olympic Committee also came to Greece together with ministers from around the world to express solidarity with those with intellectual disabilities. The European Union provided unprecedented financial support as did the private sector. All these, far from attacking Greece, are investing in her and could be significant actors in creating her future.

There can be little doubt that the political and economic struggles of Greece and the crisis is far from over. But Greece did not fail the athletes of Special Olympics and the athletes of Special Olympics have not failed Greece. They have given her perhaps the greatest gift: hope itself.

During the Games, Special Olympics International signed three international sports proclamations, including with the International Volleyball Federation. At the signing were stars of the volleyball community including Olympic champions Tom Hoff of the US, Vladimir Vanja Grbiõ of Serbia, Adriana Behar of Brazil, and Aldis Berzins, 1984 gold medalist who now works as a sports director for Special Olympics International.

Special Olympics has 135,000 volleyball athletes across 105 Special Olympics programs globally. The FIVB has 221 members.

Earlier in the week there was an accord signed with the International Softball Federation (ISF) and their president Don Porter. At a press conference Porter had called attention to the need for the international sports community to rally together behind Special Olympics. "ISF hereby proclaims unanimous support and affinity for Special Olympics and all of the athletes whose extraordinary courage represent the true spirit of sportsmanship."

The other global proclamation signed in Athens this week was with Kevin Dornberger, president of the World Tenpin Bowling Association (WTBA), with whom Special Olympics signed an official proclamation on 26 June. Dornberger pledged to include Special Olympics as a permanent fixture in the World Tenpin Association World Championships.

While protests were going on outside, the Greek parliament held a special session with invited guests of from SO to commemorate the Declaration of the Promotion of Sports Integration in Schools Act, a landmark law that promotes the full inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities through sport. Even amidst economic and political challenges, Prime Minister George Papandreou attended the declaration's signing. "By hosting this event, we send the noble message of social inclusion, humanity, and solidarity through and by sport," said Papandreou, " In an age of differences, we have a social responsibility to promote values and peace."

The declaration was ratified in parliament in front of an audience of 67 young people from more than 30 countries and guests of the Games. The Special Olympics movement hopes the declaration will contribute to a lasting legacy of acceptance, inclusion and joy among the people of Greece.

Building upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the success of Special Olympics Unified Sports, the declaration implements a new system in schools to ensure that students with intellectual disabilities participate in physical education and sports programmes throughout Greece. It protects the rights of people with disabilities, including their autonomy, integration and participation in social activities, and also creates opportunities for them to move from segregated classrooms and activities to integrated physical education.

From an annual day of integration in all schools to a continuous school-year plan, the declaration will lead to better communication and social interaction between students with and without intellectual disabilities; will inform citizens of Greece of the challenges students with intellectual disabilities face in school; train teachers to educate and include students with intellectual disabilities in integrated education and sports programmes; and expand teacher training curricula in the field of intellectual disabilities and inclusive education in universities.

The declaration is one step toward changing cultural attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities and creating a more inclusive society for all and a model for other countries to advance similarly inclusive legislation.

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