By Crystal Thompson
To most athletes, the thrill of competition and the rigor of testing one's physical and mental limits is what makes sports so enticing. For those with mental and developmental disabilities, however, the ability to compete and excel in activities such as swimming, bicycling, track, or skiing may seem limited and perhaps even out of reach.
Since 1968 a program called The Special Olympics has provided a place for people with disabilities to overcome challenges and come together to participate in programs of physical fitness, sports training and athletic competition.
The Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games are set to take place in Billings, May 16-18. Special Olympics Montana is a nonprofit organization designed to provide year-round athletic programs to children and adults with mental retardation and closely related developmental disabilities. Special Olympics serves athletes at all ability levels by assigning them to "competition divisions" based on both age and actual performance. The benefits of participation in Special Olympics for people with mental retardation include improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence, a more positive self-image, friendships and increased family support.
The Special Olympics were formed over thirty years ago by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Shriver developed the Special Olympics concept in the early 1960s, after she successfully developed a day camp for people with mental retardation. She saw that the campers were far more capable of physical activity and sports competition than experts at the time thought. In 1968, Shriver organized the First International Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Since then, the Special Olympics has grown into a nationwide organization, serving the mentally disabled in nearly 150 countries around the world. In the United States, there are Special Olympics Chapters in 25,000 communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Special Olympics programs are continually being developed all around the world.
Special Olympics cites the benefits of its program as improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence, a more positive self-image, friendships and increased family support for those with mental disabilities. Special Olympics athletes are given the opportunity to carry these benefits with them into their daily lives at home, in the classroom, on the job and in the community. Families who participate become stronger as they learn a greater appreciation of their athletes' talents on and off the field. Community volunteers find out what good friends the athletes can be and everyone involved learns more about the capabilities of people with mental retardation.
Special Olympics believes that competition among those of equal abilities is the best way to test its athletes' skills, measure their progress and inspire them to grow. Special Olympics is based on the belief that its program of sports training and competition helps people with mental retardation become physically fit and grow mentally, socially and spiritually.
Special Olympics of Montana Great Northern Area Director Kim Kirby said that nearly seventy athletes will be participating in the regional Special Olympics games to be held in Havre on April 25 at the Middle School and at Hi-Line Lanes. Kirby has been involved with the Special Olympics for seven years and says that there is nothing more rewarding than seeing an athlete mature socially. "It's highly rewarding to see the athletes interact appropriately in a social setting," Kirby said.
Recently, the local Special Olympics held a silent auction fund-raiser at the Holiday Village Shopping Center. "I'd just like to thank the businesses and the community who supported us," Kirby said, "We raised over $1900." The silent auction included gifts donated by local businesses, as well as fifteen pairs of Montana State University Northern athletes who volunteered their time and service to the highest bidder. Kirby said that the money raised will go to defray the costs of those traveling to the Special Olympics State Games in May, including hotel and meal expenses.
Special Olympics was created with the time, energy, dedication and commitment of more than 500,000 volunteers. Volunteers include students, senior citizens, business people, family members of athletes, amateur and professional athletes and coaches, teachers and many others. They fill a wide variety of roles for Special Olympics programs at the local, state, national and international levels, from the role of coach, fund-raiser, timer and scorer. Anyone can become a Special Olympics volunteer. The spirit of Special Olympics is skill, courage, sharing and joy that transcends boundaries of geography, nationality, political philosophy, gender, age, race or religion. The Special Olympics Oath encompasses the true spirit of their athletes; "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
To be eligible to participate in the Special Olympics as an athlete, you must be at least eight years old and identified by an agency or professional as having one of the following conditions: mental retardation, cognitive delays as measured by formal assessment, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delay that require or have required specially-designed instruction. To learn more about becoming a part of the Special Olympics visit www.specialolympics.org.