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The Special Olympics and the right to participate

Stefanie Arts
September 23, 2022

The Special Olympics may not be as well-known as the Olympic Games, but they are no less important. The competitions for people with intellectual and physical disabilities are about much more than athletic performance.

Athletes cheer during Artistic Gymnastics competition during Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi
Not just at the World Games in Abu Dhabi are the Special Olympics mainly about participation and having funImage: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

"We're proud to be involved in basketball, it's a great honor for us," said Thomas Schwenkewitz during the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state Special Olympics in the western German city of Bonn in early September. 

The Special Olympics are made up of sporting competitions for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. 

The 31-year-old athlete wears his long hair in a braid and was a bit out of breath after the warmup. Schwenkewitz had already participated in several NRW Special Olympics, as well as the national equivalent. He works in the carpentry department of a workshop for people with disabilities. "Woodworking," as he puts it. 

He and his teammates train after work every Friday, something Schwenkewitz said they all enjoyed immensely. He has been playing basketball since he was 7 years old, and he enjoys watching his favorite sport on TV. But he believes that the fact that it's not possible for people with disabilities to play professional basketball makes it all the more important that the Special Olympics exist. They are great for making new contacts and friendships, Schwenkewitz stressed. "And, of course, for having fun." 

Under the IOC's umbrella 

Around 5 million athletes from more than 170 countries compete under the auspices of the Special Olympics. In an effort to create as level a playing field as possible, there is a classification system that places athletes into different categories based on the degree of their disability.

Since the Special Olympics are recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), certain Olympic traditions such as the torch relay are held. Unlike the Olympic Games, though, the focus is more on participation than on winning. 

Fireworks in stadium at Special Olympics in  Abu Dhabi 2019
Special Olympics World Games include opening and closing ceremonies similar to the Olympics Image: Xia Yifang/Xinhua/picture alliance

Germany's national association, Special Olympics Germany, has 14 regional chapters, including the one in North Rhine-Westphalia, which organized the games in Bonn.

Due to the principle of athletic advancement, which Special Olympics Germany espouses, athletes are required to meet certain competitive benchmarks to qualify for national or international events.

Since 2020, national competitions have been held in Germany every two years, alternating between summer and winter games. The Special Olympics World Games, which are to be held in Berlin in 2023 — and thus in Germany for the first time, also follow a two-year cycle. The last winter games were in Graz in 2021, and in 2019 the summer games were held in Abu Dhabi. 

Breaking down barriers, enabling participation

In addition to the sporting competitions, all Special Olympics events include health promotion and prevention programs. These specifically target people with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities, as they often have poorer access to the healthcare system, but at the same time are subject to greater health risks. Raising awareness about such barriers and breaking them down is another priority for the Special Olympics.

The right of people with disabilities to have access to sports is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Among other things, it states that every individual has the right to be an equal part of society. The primary aim is not to integrate people with disabilities retrospectively, but to create structures that enable unrestricted participation for all people from the outset. And this includes participation in sporting activities in an appropriate form.

Nevertheless, it is not always easy for the athletes, even at the Special Olympics. Leonie Rapphahn has been playing basketball since 2016 and these were her second NRW Games. 

She first had to get accustomed to the event, and most of all to the amount of people, "because I can't judge them very well," Rapphahn explained. What the 16-year-old likes most about basketball is shooting baskets and winning. Despite her difficulties with so many people being involved, Rapphahn would like to participate in the Special Olympics again.

Basketball players listen to a man speaking into a microphone
The Special Olympics give athletes with disabilities the chance to participate and compete in their favorite sportImage: Anna Spindelndreier/Special Olympics NRW

More than just sporting events

In addition to the traditional teams in which Schwenkewitz and Rapphahn play, there are also what are known as "Unified Teams." Here, people with and without disabilities compete as part of the same team. 

Observers are assigned to ensure that people really do play together, and that no single team member seeks to dominate a game. However, according to Stefan Hübner, the Special Olympics coordinator for basketball in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, this is seldom a problem as the participants generally buy in to the idea that the main goal is to have fun.

Another advantage to competing in the Special Olympics is that it gives some athletes the opportunity to travel far and wide — like to Abu Dhabi, where the last World Games were also held. 

"Some of them get around quite a bit," Hübner said.

Still, as Rapphahn noted, the top priority will always be about the opportunity for people like her to actively participate in their chosen sport.

"This is my sport, I just feel free," she said.

Everyone's a Winner - The Special Olympics

This article was translated from German.