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Special Olympics to celebrate 'legacy of Jesse Owens'

June 16, 2023

The 16th edition of the Special Olympics World Games are set to open in Berlin. DW explains what it is, how it differs from the Paralympics and what makes the event so unique.

A flag for the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023
The 16h edition of the Special Olympics World Games will take place in BerlinImage: Andreas Gora/dpa/picture alliance

Ibrahima Diallo can't wait to get back to the starting line.

The Guinean sprinter will be looking to defend his title in the 100 meters at the upcoming Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, which begin on Saturday. But what he hopes to achieve in the German capital goes beyond the track.

"My dream is to become a star the world over. For everyone to talk about me and Guinea," Diallo, 22, told DW. "My goal is to make the Special Olympics better known, to help us grow."

2023 Special Olympics begin in Berlin

He spent this week prepping for the event in Bornheim, one of over 200 so-called "Host Towns" all over Germany, before heading to Berlin. When not training, he got to do some sightseeing in Cologne and met athletes from all over the world.

"It's really magnificent to be here," he said.

Diallo will be one of some 7,000 athletes from 190 countries expected to partake in this year's World Games and one of over 3 million athletes with an intellectual disability that participates in Special Olympics competitions. They will all be looking to show that, even though they are different, there is no limit to what they can achieve.

Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver has told DW that the 2023 games in Berlin will celebrate 'the legacy of Jesse Owens'.

Shriver: "Have the entire world present"

Saturday's opening ceremony will take place at the Olympic Stadium, which was built to host the Olympics in 1936. In conversation with DW, Shriver reflected on the legacy of those games and the symbolism of his organisation's events.

"The stadium last saw an Olympic torch in 1936, when the games were dominated by the specter of a violent, oppressive, extraordinarily mean-spirited regime," said Shriver. "Now, we'll be welcoming into that same stadium the legacy of Jesse Owens; these new pioneers, these new rebels for dignity and inclusion."

"We'll have the entire world present, 180-plus countries, represented not by politicians or diplomats, but by the world's most humble, welcoming, and inclusive people," he told DW.

The Special Olympics chairman also discussed what he called his organisation's 'challenge to governments' to strengthen the social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

"Some would estimate as many as 80% of children with intellectual disabilities never go to school," Shriver told DW. "Governments have committed to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, but there hasn't been action."

DW speaks with Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics

What is the Special Olympics?

The Special Olympics is an international sports organization that provides training and competitions to children and adults with intellectual (learning) disabilities in various Olympic sports.

The organization was founded in 1968 at the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago, Illinois. Eunice Kennedy Schriver, the sister of US President John F. Kennedy, was a central figure in its establishment.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver helping an intellectually disabled child into a pool
Eunice Kennedy Shriver (left) was key in founding the Special OlympicsImage: iDominika Zarzycka/mago sportfotodienst

At the time of its founding, research had shown that sports and exercise positively affected children with intellectual disabilities, including higher concentration rates, better social skills and greater self-confidence. The Special Olympics inspired a broader societal acceptance of people with such disabilities.

With national programs in 204 countries, it now holds tens of thousands of competitions annually for people with intellectual disabilities, including the World Summer Games and World Winter Games, which occur every four years.

The difference between Special Olympics and Paralympics

Regarding competition, the Special Olympics concentrates mainly on people with intellectual disabilities. While the Paralympics, and, more broadly, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), has incorporated such disabilities, it primarily focuses on physical disabilities.

As a result, the Special Olympics and the Paralympics structure their competitions very differently. The classification system used for the Paralympics groups athletes based on their physical disability and the severity of that disability. In contrast, the Special Olympics uses a so-called "divisioning" system that groups athletes based on ability level, regardless of disability or, in multiple competitions, gender — the organization aims for a 15% difference between the first-place and last-place finisher of a competition.

Two badminton players high-fiving at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi
Unified Sports, where able and disabled athletes compete together, makes the Special Olympics uniqueImage: Xia Yifang)/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Something unique to the Special Olympics is what they call "Unified Sports," where people with and without intellectual disabilities compete together. The aim is to have both groups of athletes competing together to promote integration.

The Special Olympics, like the IPC, is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and certain traditions, like an opening ceremony and torch relay, are also recognized. But whereas the Paralympics occurs shortly after the Olympics, the Special Olympics World Games does not align with the Olympic calendar.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium
The opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Games will be at Berlin's Olympic StadiumImage: Andreas Gora/dpa/picture alliance

The 2023 Special Olympic World Games in Germany

This year's Special Olympics World Summer Games is the 16th edition of the competition and is set to take place in Berlin from June 17 to 25. On display will be 26 different sports, which will take place at historic facilities such at the Olympic Park, Messe Berlin and the Europasportpark. 

The opening ceremonies are set to take place on June 17 in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier is expected to open the event, which will also feature performances from Madcon, a Norwegian hip hop duo, and the Blue Man Group.

The motto of the games is "unbeatable together," underscoring the Special Olympics advocacy for inclusion and acceptance. For athletes like Ibrahima Diallo, it will be an event where their dreams of becoming a star could come true.

Edited by: James Thorogood