This is the Life: These Olympics really are special

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I’m not a big fan of the Olympic Games. I can take them or leave them. But the Special Olympics are another thing entirely.

Recently, I spent a couple of hours at the Creston Education Centre gym, where soccer and floor hockey practices were taking place. I couldn’t help but smile; many of the athletes are people I’ve known for many years and it was a great pleasure to see them in a different context than the ones I am used to.

The best part, though, was to see that sports can be activities where competition isn’t everything, where people with huge differences in skill can get out onto the same floor or field or bowling alley and play the games to the best of their ability.

Bowling is the Special Olympics activity with which I am most familiar. For a decade I helped with the care of men with a variety of physical and mental challenges and bowling was one of their favourite sports. Wincing at the sight and sound of balls being lobbed in a high arc halfway down the alley was a weekly event, as were the high fives with anyone who got a strike. It always seemed to be especially cool that bowlers who were lucky to score 60 in a five-pin game could enjoy their games as much as ones racking up a 200 or better score.

Embarrassment is a flaw most commonly found among those of us who are competent in most aspects of life. We don’t like to fail or to stand out as less likely to succeed than those around us. What percentage of “normal” people who bowl regularly are just flat out terrible at the game, lucky to get one out of three balls down the lane without hitting the gutter?

Or how many “normal” soccer participants, at any level, do we see on the field whose shots are so slow they don’t have a chance of getting to the net, let alone across the goal line?

For most, sports are for those who excel, or at least who are good enough to compete without standing out like a sore thumb.

Special Olympics gets it right, though. There are opportunities to compete at higher levels for those who excel (and there are many who do). But for the athletes who are just fulfilled by the idea of getting out and doing something that’s not part of their regular routine, there is a place that welcomes them, week in week out, year in and year out. It matters not in the least that they aren’t getting better at the game, or that they might even be getting worse as age progresses and physical and mental abilities decrease. They are welcome, no questions asked.

Like any community that relies on volunteers, Special Olympics is a hit-and-miss proposition. It’s often the parents who get involved as coaches and organizers and supporters, but the volunteering takes its toll as they age, too. Lucky communities are able to draw younger volunteers who might not have any direct connection to those with varied disabilities, but who see value in contributing their time and energy. They are rewarded with smiles and laughter, with frustration and fury, and by the occasional temper tantrum. But they also get to see their community from a different angle, and learn that people with mental and physical handicaps aren’t really that much different than their friends and neighbours and family.

“Differently abled” is one of the most cumbersome phrases that have been used over the years as we struggle to ways of categorizing and pigeonholing people, but it is a fair and accurate term.

When we had friends and family who expressed surprise by what they saw and heard when they were in the company of the men we worked and lived with for 10 years, I often found myself saying, “They aren’t stupid, they are just different.”

And aren’t we all?

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.