Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Play unified, live unified

In an exclusive interview, the CEO of Special Olympics International Mary Davis tells Inas Mazhar about the role of the movement and her visit to the Middle East and North Africa

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It was her first visit to Egypt but the second to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Five years ago, she had been to Morocco attending a huge conference for a five-year plan for the region. “We had the conference to plan and do the details to our first strategic plan then, from 2011 to 2016,” Mary Davis, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Special Olympics International (SOI), told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The plan was set five years ago and was implemented during those years and it has just finished in 2016 and we are about to start a new one. Morocco was the catalyst to start this planning which we are now continuing to do. This time round the whole process is much easier because we did it before. Now, we are looking forward to setting and doing the 2016-2020 plan.”

SOI is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 5.3 million athletes in nearly 170 countries.

 Davis revealed the SOI vision for the future: “It is to use the power of sports to open the hearts and minds of the community at large and society to understand the abilities and what our athletes can do and to ensure that they are respected and accepted within the communities where they live. So it is a really simple vision to visually be aware of the power of sports and the value of people with intellectual disability and how much we can learn from them and how much they can contribute to their society.

“Often, in some countries and many societies even in Western countries and the US, people of intellectual disability are still marginalised, excluded. There is a stigma around intellectual disability in many places, and we are trying to break this and simply use the power of sport to do that. That is our vision for the next number of years and we have two major goals -- one is to improve the quality of what we offer because before that we concentrated on spreading Special Olympics all over the world. It’s now in 169 countries, 32 sports altogether and we have nearly 5.3 million involved in the programme, so if you take all that we have it growing quite substantially both in terms of our reach and in numbers and now we really, really want to concentrate on the quality of what we offer to make sure that our athletes are getting the best training opportunities.

“We also want to make sure that they have good health as well and we want to introduce young people to the abilities of our athletes to sports. So we have this programme called Unified Sports where we invite people with disabilities to meet together so they understand each other, so that they grow well with the knowledge and with an education of understanding and acceptance and that they don’t fear the difference, because often what we have heard people say is that they’ve never met someone with intellectual disability but once they started to understand that they can play football, bocchi, basketball and tennis just as well as them, they realised there was no difference. It’s only that they are slower to learn. And that’s the difference. We are all different in our own different ways. There are many things that I can do, and you can’t do. It is the same for people with intellectual disability. There are things they can’t do as well. We know that with proper training and instruction, they can achieve hugely.

“The second goal is to raise more awareness and promote our message to inclusivity around the world and to educate as many people as possible about the capabilities of our athletes. The whole communications, the public relations side, is very important to us as well in changing ultimately the attitudes towards Special Olympians,” Davis said.

The Irish Davis joined Special Olympics soon after college as a local programme volunteer and coach. She served in a series of leadership roles, helping create the first ever Regional Games and the 1985 Special Olympics European Games, working to build a powerful national programme as CEO of Special Olympics Ireland, and helping globalise the movement as CEO of the first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside the US since 1968, in Ireland 2003.

“Special Olympics was still new in Ireland in 1978 when founder Eunice Shriver came to our school. She ran a clinic herself for all of us and offered us all resources we didn’t have. Then, we had little resources to produce very little manuals or materials or videos to teach. We were looking for those things so when she came with these resources it was fantastic and we told ourselves ‘now we got what we needed, now we can work’ and I worked with them as a volunteer, in the evenings and weekends. I met my husband through Special Olympics and we continued to do that for 10 years.

“What inspired me were the intellectual disabled people. Actually, when I first started, I wasn’t trained as a Special Olympics teacher but as a regular teacher and I learned as I went along. When I went to work in it initially, I thought I would do it for a few months and then look for a real job. I was young, 22 or 23, so I started out like that and after about six months I thought I love this job, that this is what I love to do. I love what I am doing and I couldn’t want a different job and I just stayed there all the time. I continued and became the first national director for Special Olympics Ireland, and worked in that role for years. That was the time when we, in Ireland, decided it was time to bid for the World Games. We didn’t think we could get it but we did. It was wonderful to take care of the organisation and to see how our country received the athletes. The 2003 Games absolutely transformed the country. We were different people after the Games.”

Davis recalls how those Games changed the lives of the Irish. “People understood much more about our athletes and about intellectual disabilities and understood how much they were capable of and how much fun and joy it was to be around them because they came into communities in the country and stayed with families four days before the Games. It exposed the families’ worlds so almost every family practically in the country was involved in one way or another and we had 30,000 volunteers in the Games. Many people were working and many people watched the Games so they saw what an effect the Games could have and how much optimism and hope the Games can bring to families and that influenced their thinking and transformed their lives. We achieved 98 per cent awareness from hosting the Games.”

In appreciation of her efforts in the Games, Davis was awarded Person of the Year in 2003, as well as recognition for her years of service with Special Olympics Ireland. In 2004, then-president of Ireland Mary McAleese appointed Davis to her Council of State [advisory body to the president on legislative matters], where she remained until 2011. “After 2003, I worked for three years on implementing the legacy of the Games in Ireland, because we didn’t apply to host the Games for reasons like increasing tourism and bringing people to our country. We didn’t care about that. We did it only for one reason which was the difference it was going to make for our athletes and the country and building a very strong programme in Ireland.

“I then went to work in the Euro-Asia region which included 58 countries which I looked after try to bring that spirit I saw in Ireland to all those countries. Then, last year, I was invited to become the CEO of Special Olympics International thus becoming the first non-American to hold that post. This meant moving to Washington and being based there, part time in Washington and part time in Dublin.”

The next Summer Special Olympic Games is to be held in 2019 and Davis’ role will be different. “It’s obviously a different capacity. In 2003, I was CEO of our Games in Ireland, and now CEO of SOI, so I will share the experience I gathered over the years and set out a lot of documents for the 2019 organisers to benefit from in hosting the Games to ensure that the Games will be successful.”

According to Davis, the host nation is to be named later this month. “Several countries are applying from Europe and one from the MENA region, but I really hope it comes to this region. We are right in the middle of the bidding process and are looking at the bids. We did some site visits and we have an executive committee meeting that will be taking place by next week where we will look at all bids and, fingers crossed, we will choose the host city. I think it would be fantastic for the Games to come to the MENA region because we have had the Games being held in the US, Europe and Asia so I think that would make a huge difference in terms of bringing awareness and recognition to Special Olympics in this region.

“I see the fantastic work that has been done here in this region by MENA Regional President and Managing Director Ayman Abdel- Wahab and his team. I have seen some of the schools here in Cairo and how they work with Special Olympics. So, by hosting the Games in this region, there will be more awareness and conscious raised about it and that is one of the reasons why I believe it should be hosted in this region. In this case, we may have to change the time because of the heat in this region in summer, bring it forward to March. I don’t think there is an issue about that. But anyway, the decision isn’t mine; it’s the 48 board members.”

In her first year of her mandate, Davis has so far visited six of the seven regions of Special Olympics and finds it hard to say who is the more progressive. “Well, each region brings its own flavour and its own difference. I am very pleased about those visits because I have always loved meeting people who run our programmes and attend their business meetings like here when I had the chance to meet all the represented countries of the MENA region. The China region is my final stop.

“In MENA, I have seen the fantastic job done here, especially in health. What I saw in the clinics here was so impressive. It’s incredible to see the number of volunteer professionals from various disciplines in dentistry, radiology, dietary -- all those disciplines -- and their treating and screening of our athletes to see if they can hear well, if they need glasses to see better. They are very professional and well trained. I believe those physicians will go back where they work in their daily job and they are going to talk to others and train them. So we have trained the trainers, so you are spreading this message and really this is what we really need to do: find the ways to partner with organisations and agencies, schools and universities that are going to spread the word for us.

“I also noticed when I walked in through a health education programme for families, hundreds of them gathered to learn about nutrition and how to look after their children’s health and I saw such warmth, friendliness and smiles from them when they saw me and I was happy to see them. It was such a warm feeling you get when you are around them.

“The MENA region has done a terrific job here in this region. There is a super team here led by Ayman who is fantastic, as is his staff.”

In 2018, SOI will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movement on 20 July in Chicago. “It’s a great milestone for us and obviously two years away from now, so we will be celebrating taking the spirit of what happened back when the movement launched in 1968 to what legacy can we leave and see after 50 years from now. What we want to see is our athletes playing in a unified way. We believe strongly that by playing unified, we live unified and that’s our message for the future, inviting people to join our movement, participate and learn from the athletes and to be more enriched and more opened to differences as a result of this learning.

“We have other goals as well. We should raise $ 100 million and capture 100 million names and people into our database and bring them out to the movement. We are trying to build our own whole database for the coming 50 years. It is always the challenge of how to do your work quicker, better and faster. We always ask ourselves a question: what can propel us to do more training and offer more opportunities? Can we do it online, use new technology? So that’s the future. So far, we have reached 5.3 million, but the real challenge is to reach out to 200 million intellectually disabled all over the world. We need to find smarter ways and technology to assist us to do that to grow our movement.”

Davis leads an international team of more than 200 professionals throughout the world who are addressing inactivity, injustice, intolerance and social isolation by encouraging and empowering people with intellectual disabilities to be productive citizens in their communities, which leads to a more welcoming and inclusive society for all. The mother of four children -- Jonathan, Rebecca, Emma and Patrick – Davis says her children “are very fortunate having grown up with Special Olympics and whom they volunteer as well. The eldest is 33 and the youngest 27.”

Davis’ message to the world is to be open to the abilities of your son, your daughter or your sibling, and to be proud of them.

“When someone is born into a family with an intellectual disability, the family feels sad and believes there is no future for them. But, there is a great future for them if the society would only open its mind and heart towards the intellectual disabled and be accepting, understanding and ensure that they are part of the communities where they all live. Intellectual disability people want and desire what we do want and desire, as you and I. They love talking, chatting, having fun, playing sports, love arts, singing and dancing and some are even better than us. They enjoy life and they love to learn new things, so they have an enormous richness that we can benefit from if we only allow ourselves to be open and be welcoming to people with intellectual disability.

“That’s my strongest message and we do it through the power of sports. We don’t care about how many medals somebody wins, but the ability to do it. It’s not about who is the fastest or the greatest but about overcoming the obstacles and being able to do it.”

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