1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Special Olympics: Sports stars lend voice to World Games

Kyle McKinnon
June 20, 2023

The Special Olympics hopes to change attitudes toward disabilities. Participating athletes are inspiring people the world over, including sporting giants like Dirk Nowitzki and Lewis Hamilton.

A cyclist competes in Berlin, with the Brandenburg Gate in the background
The Special Olympics World Games are underway in Berlin and inspiring people across the globeImage: Christoph Soeder/picture alliance/dpa

As the Special Olympics World Games kicked off with its opening ceremony in Berlin's Olympic Stadium on Sunday, legendary Dallas Mavericks' player Dirk Nowitzki had one simple request: "Come out and support all the athletes."

The basketball star was not alone in lending his support to the Special Olympians. Seven-time Formula 1 champion driver Lewis Hamilton sent a message to the 7,000 partaking athletes from 180 countries, especially those from Great Britain.

"It's really amazing what you are able to do out there," Hamilton said in a video. "Just go out and have the best time and enjoy yourself."  

Taking part

Indeed, as Hamilton implies, the "taking part" is as important, if not more, than the competition at the Special Olympics. "I am massively inspired and so proud of all of you," he added.

Dirk Nowitzki at the Special Olympics
Former National Basketball Association MVP Dirk Nowitzki has called for more inclusion in grassroots sportsImage: Liu Yang/Xinhua/IMAGO

"It is not about winning or losing but about engaging in sport," said Nowitzki, the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player in 2007, who hails from from Würzburg, Germany.

"It's about athletes coming together and having the chance to play and learn from sports, just like I did," Nowitzki said after an appearance with the German Special Olympics 3-on-3 basketball teams. "I am happy to experience this."

Romania's five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci is similarly inspired, and not just by the athletes. "Special Olympics is not just about a big event like Berlin, important though that is," she wrote recently. "It's also about the work done at grassroots level" by coaches, trainers and administrators.

Some 3,000 coaches have joined the athletes in Berlin. But that's a drop in the ocean compared to those who work with the 6 million athletes with intellectual disabilities globally, "using sport to create an inclusive world for people of all abilities," as Comaneci, a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, wrote in a Laureus Sport for Good column.

Challenge to German, European sports clubs

Among the stars promoting the Special Olympics in Berlin is its chairman Timothy Shriver, a member of the Kennedy political dynasty. His mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, helped start the Special Olympics. 

He told DW he sees the Games in Berlin specifically helping German and European sports clubs further open their doors to Special Olympians. "We're very confident that this country will embrace the idea of the Special Olympics as a challenge to be more inclusive in sports clubs and schools," he said.

"Less than 10% of the clubs offer sport for Special Olympics athletes. I hope that the Special Olympics World Games will create more attention."

We hope that this message resonates throughout Europe," Shriver told DW. "People with intellectual disabilities have something unique to offer."

Changing attitudes

As the Special Olympics' message continues to resonate around the world, the hope is that events in Berlin can further change perceptions. "Let's change public attitudes towards disability, Special Olympics," Didier Drogba, the former Ivory Coast football star tweeted.

He, like Comaneci, famous for the first-ever Olympics perfect gymnastics in 1976, is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. So are Irish golfer Padraig Harrington, American figure skater Michelle Kwan and Chinese tennis star Li Na.

"I don't think anyone can understand just how hard the journey has been for all of you to be able to be where you are," said F1 driver Hamilton, speaking to the participants in his video.

As the World Games continue to inspire people across the globe, many, it seems, are coming closer to that understanding.

Edited by: James Thorogood

Kyle McKinnon x