Medals from the Special Olympics World Games. Photo by Salvador Ochoa.

The Quest To Belong And The Need To Participate

The Special Olympics World Games LA2015 highlights athletes whose stories exemplify the diversity of the human experience. But that experience is shared by all, and we need more action to make it inclusive.

For the past eight months, I’ve been learning the stories at the heart of the Special Olympics World Games. These stories were told to me by excited athletes ready to compete, proud parents remembering the early days of training and coaches remarking on the hard work of their teams. This was all done through words: email chains, phone interviews, research anecdotes, archived tales. I recorded and read, wrote and edited. As the weeks went by and the Games grew closer, statistics around the athletes punctuated these narratives. 6,500 athletes. 2,000 coaches. 165 countries. As monumental as these stories and numbers are, they also made me feel removed. I had not seen these athletes compete in person, and I couldn’t comprehend thousands of them coming to my hometown from throughout the world.

Photo by Ken Smith.

But when the Games began, that changed. Athletes greeted me with smiles and hugs. They showed me their medals with accomplished grins, and they allowed me to see their work in progress during events. In every instance, I felt happy to have met and seen them as a witness to their myriad of accomplishments. But one athlete, whose name I don’t know and whose event I had just missed, struck me in particular. I stood beside her moments after a ceremony where she had received a participatory medal. She had come in fifth place during her event, but that fact was hidden by her reaction. She was crying quietly, and the tears moved down her face in streams that parted over red, round cheeks. Her fists were still clenched in a victory pose as she was directed to leave the podium.

Although we didn’t speak, and she soon fell into the surrounding crowd, I tried to imagine what she was thinking in that moment. I did it. I made it. Thank you.

The World Games was conceived in a quest for inclusion by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and that goal is a driving, evolving force. It’s nine days where people with intellectual disabilities — a group routinely marginalized in the workforce, by health care and through daily interactions — can feel, even briefly, the significance of their own quests. In these Games, they can do what everyone should have the right to do: participate, and feel welcome.

In the course of these nine days, athletes have shown what they can do when given the chance to belong. A Jamaican track star can run a 50-meter race by the speed of his hands. An American triathlete can out-pace his competition after training seven days a week. Sure, there are gold medals at stake. But the glory of first place can often seem secondary. The lasting legacy of the World Games isn’t to win, it’s to be worthy. These athletes, and all people with disabilities, are worthy of their goals. They’re worthy of their triumphs, and their failures, and all of the particularities that make up a full life. This is not because they’ve been dealt a difficult card. This is because their lives, like all lives, are more intricate than they appear. We all seek to have a moment in our lives when we can think, “I did it. I made it. Thank you.” And we all deserve the chance to realize it.

I’ve learned about many stories through the World Games. But their emotional impact truly came when I was able to use those words as a starting point for action. We can all feel inspired by tales of improbable victory, but until we act upon the message of the World Games — until a quest for inclusion is no longer limited to nine days — these moments of solidarity are the exception, rather than the rule. Like the athlete who was brought to tears simply by being acknowledged for her participation, our efforts will matter. Progress is in our willingness to participate in the truth that we are all worthy.


To continue the progress of inclusion, get involved with the Special Olympics. Find out how at specialolympics.org.