On Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure of being guests at the Opening Ceremony of the European Summer Special Olympics which are taking place this week in Belgium.
It was an enjoyable and at times moving experience, the Special Olympics is a really distinctive movement that is well worth celebrating and Belgium did a great job with the launch.
The Special Olympics are the separate movement for people with Intellectual Disabilities which keeps the games separate from the much bigger and more extensively funded Olympics and Paralympics.
It began in the 1950s and 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the fifth of the nine Kennedys from the renowned US political family) began working to introduce sports and physical activities in to summer camps for children with Intellectual Disabilities. In 1968 they became the Special Olympics which formed a part of her much wider work in the field.
There are now Special Olympics for continents as well as world summer and winter games. This year’s event in Belgium was for the Eurasia region so it included not only most European countries but also many participants from the central Asian countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
The Paralympics have grown in profile and stature since they were linked to the Olympic Games but the Special Olympics are by far the smaller player in the sport scene and they are much less well known internationally. I was delighted to discover that Belgium has one of the best established national Special Olympics programmes in Europe which meant it was a very proud host of the games. The city of Antwerp is actually the host city however because of their support the European Union and the national Belgian supporters were invited to celebrate the opening of the games in the national capital with the Belgian Queen, Prime Minister, outgoing President of the European Council Hermann van Rompuy and a range of other guests and supporters.
So that is how we ended up on a lovely summer afternoon at Heysel, the part of Brussels that hosts the national stadium, national Expo Centre and our old friend the Atomium which was glistening brightly in the sunshine.
Our ceremony took place in one of the indoor halls which gave it a nice intimate feeling suitable for the “inclusive games” and enabled the show to be all about light and music. Unfortunately my little camera is really not up to the job of indoor photography in this environment so you can see some of my blurry impressions here but I have also linked to the very excellent 7 minute highlights film of the ceremony below and some of the official photographs can be found on the official web site here.
We were treated to an extended dance and acrobatic show that threaded its way through the two hour event and kept the whole thing bouncing along.
A Belgian flavour was given by the giants and puppets which are a feature of the celebrated Belgian carnivals and parades of Mardi Gras.
But my far the most impactful moments were perhaps the simplest, the ones that were most about the people the games are celebrating.
The teams were accompanied into the room by lively music, applause and cheering that never stopped. You could see the teams just burst with enjoyment at the welcome, dancing and waving their way to their seats. There was a huge welcome for all Belgium’s neighbours like Luxembourg and the Netherlands and of course a massive welcome for the home team, biggest of the whole event.
The raising of the games flags and the EU flag were accompanied by the EU Hymn, “Ode to Joy” but instead of the full orchestra the music was played by a young German man with an Intellectual Disability who played the tune on a harmonica to barely a dry eye in the house. You can see him in the video.
And finally there was just a ticker tape snowstorm over the heads of the athletes who were up and applauding their welcome. Joyful and celebratory.
Please enjoy the video of the event, it was a special occasion. (If the link to a video does not appear here please read the original post in your browser.)
During this week one of the 10 sports taking place will be the cycling events in Antwerp including time trials and road races with the rules allowing for tandems and trikes as well as modified bikes.
I am really delighted by that, both personally and professionally. When I worked at the national cyclists’ charity in the UK one of my proudest achievements was raising money to launch an inclusion programme for cycling which meant we could run development activities at centres right across the country. Almost every time I found myself visiting one of our special sessions for people with Intellectual or physical disabilities I was moved by the enormous sense of achievement that the simple bike ride many of us take for granted can bring to so many lives. This could be a life transforming change as participants found mobility or health through cycling.
There is a brilliant gallery of the cycling at the Belgian Special Olympics pre-event held last September that just brings out the best of that spirit. There is something special in almost every image. Many similar programmes exist all over the world, almost all run by volunteers, they should all be applauded and supported.
I have no doubt whatsoever of the transformative work that the whole Special Olympics movement does. The games themselves are the pinnacle and it was a pleasure to celebrate them with everybody here in the country we now call home.