Special Olympics encourages representation

May 22, 2019 — by Neeti Badve

From March 14-21, the world celebrated the inspiring perseverance and determination of athletes that normally are not seen on television. This was the week that the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympic Games was held and the first time a ESPN, a major network, offered international television coverage for the event.

The Special Olympics is a worldwide organization founded in 1968 that strives to encourage and promote physical activity in those with intellectual disabilities. With its motto of “The Revolution is Inclusion,” it also provides a community for these athletes.

Though the Special Olympics has an important message to deliver, it is often confused with the Paralympics, an Olympic games for people with physical disabilities. In truth, the two hold completely unrelated sports events.

The World Games of the Special Olympics are held in two-year cycles, alternating between winter and summer sports. This year, more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries came to Abu Dhabi to compete in the 24 offered summer sports in the first Special Olympics to be held in the Middle East.  

One of these athletes was track and field star Khadija Sy, who already made a name for herself in the 2011 Athens and 2015 Los Angeles Games, where she won bronze and silver medals respectively in the 200m event.

Representing Senegal, Sy competed in the 200m and 4x100m races in the 2019 Games and earned a silver medal with a time of 37:07 in the 200m.

Sy was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth, and due to prejudice against those with mental disabilities in Senegal, a social worker immediately asked her mother, Rajah Diouri Sy, if she wanted to abandon her.

“I told her ‘No way, Khadija is my daughter,’” Rajah said in an interview with the Special Olympics Organization. “She would stay with us even if she is disabled.”

Khadija grew up in a world where people with mental disabilities were barred from school and job opportunities, sentenced to a life in poverty.

Rajah wanted her daughter’s life to be fulfilling, so she entered Khadija into Senegal’s Special Olympics group in 2004. At the time, there were only six athletes, one coach and one sport — track.

By going door to door and explaining the reality of intellectual disabilities, Rajah gained unprecedented fame and support for Special Olympics Senegal, promoting the idea that “disability is not inability.”

With Rajah’s help, Special Olympics Senegal underwent a complete renovation. Sports like swimming, equestrianism, soccer and table tennis were added to the program.

Khadija’s breakout success in the 2011 Olympic Games brought fame to Special Olympics Senegal — so much so that even the Minister of Sports, Matar Ba, attended the competitions, something previously unheard of.

Rajah and Khadija’s story highlights the importance of activism and representation for those with intellectual disabilities一 the very goal of the Special Olympics. Because of Rajah, Special Olympics Senegal has become the model of activism and growth for awareness of intellectual disabilities around the world.

Special education teacher Danny Wallace stresses the importance of more awareness and representation for these youth, encouraging people to at least watch the Special Olympics.

“The best thing would be to have a network actually support the Special Olympics so that viewers could witness how these athletes compete,” Wallace said.

As a basketball coach and former athlete himself, Wallace understands the potential sports has on a young person’s life; he especially emphasizes how life changing the Special Olympics could be for young people with learning disabilities.

“The Special Olympics stands for people who have the opportunity to show what they can do, community, family, good sportsmanship and a fun time. It’s actually amazing to see these athletes compete.”