Peace Corps Volunteer and event organizer Dan Dowe crossing the finish line with a participant

“Let Me Be Brave”

Organizing a Special Olympics Event in Mongolia

Story by Elisa Oliver / Images by Marcus Keely

In early January 2015, the first of many meetings was organized by three local Peace Corps Volunteers to discuss the possibility of hosting a Special Olympics competition in Erdenet, Mongolia’s second-largest city. A collection of representatives from Erdenet’s Social Welfare Office and the city’s Children’s Palace, a community space offering family and youth programs, came together to listen to the proposal.

Downtown Erdenet

The response was immediate and abundant. At the Children’s Palace an event coordinator was found and a method of communication with the entire aimag was established. Students from the local university signed up to volunteer, School 5 and MCYT, a vocational school in the city, signed-on to prepare lunches and snacks, the local Sports Complex provided use of their gym and outdoor track, and the city governor’s office graciously offered locations to host coaches’ trainings and practices.

With things falling into place, the organizing team of Peace Corps Volunteers and local students and community organizers busied themselves with planning, presenting, and organizing to prepare for the event’s opening day in mid-May. On May 13, volunteers from Erdenet, as well as Peace Corps Volunteers from across the country, gathered together to begin the registration process for the competition. Volunteers spent the morning registering athletes for events and ensuring each participant completed a physical exam. After a hectic few hours, 25 volunteers and 78 athletes, including two from the neighboring province of Bulgan, had signed up to be a part of Erdenet’s inaugural Special Olympics.

Day 1: Registration and Practice

The afternoon was filled with a fury of basketball, volleyball, and track and field practice, sometimes all happening at once. Volunteers and coaches assisted athletes and participated in some practice scrimmages, affording volunteers the opportunity to meet athletes and their families and to learn the most effective ways to communicate with all participants. Observation of athletes and communication with their teachers and parents also allowed volunteers to effectively split participants into three ability levels. The athletes finished the registration and practice day in high spirits, ready to return for competitions the next day.

Volunteers met early the following morning, preceded by a few eager athletes. The weather was cool and crisp, but perfectly bright with sunshine for the opening ceremony. As athletes and families arrived at the outdoor track, the volunteers busily prepared for the ceremony. The torch was lit and carried in by Athletics Coordinator Tuvshinbayar and a School 7 athlete Enkhsaikhan, officially commencing the ceremony.

The festivities began with a singing of the Mongolian national anthem followed by performances from the 16th Kindergarten, Laboratory 8 School, and a participating athlete from local disability center Naidwar Tov. Several news outlets attended the event, allowing Special Olympics Erdenet to gain regional and national recognition.

Scenes from the opening ceremony

After the opening ceremony, events moved inside the Sports Complex where team and indoor competitions began. The first day of competition included basketball, volleyball, football, table tennis, and swimming. Three athletes suited-up for the swimming competition, which was held in the Sports Complex’s indoor, Olympic-sized pool — the only one in the country.

An athlete competes in Erdenet’s Olympic-sized pool

The third and final day saw athletes compete in track and field events. Although athletes had been pre-registered for events, the excitement surrounding specific runs, jumps, and tosses led to higher numbers of participation. More than half of the athletes participated in the ball throw and the long jump. There were 10 events in total, organized by age group and ability level.

Some volunteers acted as timekeepers and judges, organizing athletes for each competition; others retrieved and delivered the snacks and lunches, cleaned the gyms and field, and kept records of winning athletes, while a handful of Health-Sector Peace Corps Volunteers gave presentations to athletes about hydration and nutrition.

A proud athlete and community volunteer at the awards ceremony

After the final races, athletes, coaches, and volunteers gathered for the closing ceremony and awards. As names were announced, athletes eagerly accepted certificates and awards, proudly grasping them with their hands. The Children’s Palace presented coaches, volunteers, and clubs with certificates and special gifts for their diligent work with athletes and families.

The volunteer team celebrating a successful inaugural event

Special thanks to Special Olympics Mongolia, Orkhon Aimag Office of Community Development, translators Ariunaa and Sunjidmaa, and the teachers, students, and visiting Peace Corps Volunteers who took time to help out. Erdenet’s inaugural Special Olympics could not have taken place without the dedication of our community partners, translators, volunteers and, of course, the athletes. The Children’s Palace worked diligently with PCVs to create an inclusive and empowering environment for Erdenet’s intellectually and physically disabled.

Community involvement was key in developing this important event for Erdenet’s youth and we are already looking forward to getting started on next year’s competition, and hope to make it even more successful than our first.