After being lit in Athens and traveling around the globe to more than 10 cities, the Flame of Hope is now in Shanghai to mark the beginning of the 2007 Special Olympics World Games, the sports competition in which athletes with mental retardation or developmental disabilities.
This year's Special Olympics will commence Oct. 2 with the participation of about 7,000 sports persons from over 150 countries competing in 20 categories. The 12th Special Olympics has another meaning for Turkey, as the country is sending its largest delegation yet with a squad of 62 athletes.
The Turkish squad, consisting squad chief and co-chief, 15 coaches and 7 staff members in addition to athletes, is now in its last days of training. The team is hopeful of its chances of coming back to the country with multiple medals in the eight branches it will compete in.
Hard to tell
It is hard to make estimations in intellectual disabilities' sports, as the daily factors such as motivation is crucial, says Gülay Taşpınar, general secretary of the Turkish Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (ZESFED). However, we believe that our team will come away with medals, especially in swimming, athletics and basketball.
The team has had some financial problems that were overcome with the help of the government and the sponsors saying, explained Taşpınar. The better the budget is, the better the opportunities for preparing and rehabilitating our children.
Enabling the participation of the Turkish team is a joint effort of ZESFED and the Special Olympics in Turkey (SO Turkey). This cooperation starts with the selection of the players to the national team. Being educated in special schools, athletes with intellectual disabilities are scouted throughout the year. In addition to schools, SO Turkey and the federation's involvement in the selection process, rehabilitation centers, sports clubs and foundations also lend a helping hand.
From four to 15,000
Currently there are 15,000 licensed athletes in Turkey, a relatively low number considering the country's total population of intellectually disabled people is around two million. SO Turkey's sports expert, however, sees the glass as half full when seen in the context of how far the country has come. When it started in 1982, there were only four licensed (athletes), says Öncül. He adds that selecting 62 athletes from 40 cities for the Special Olympics is a feat not to be ignored, as even the basic task of selecting the branch in which an athlete will compete is difficult for the intellectually challenged.
Öncül adds that SO Turkey has greatly benefited from the Association for the Sports, Education and Rehabilitation for Special Athletes and its Honorary Chairwoman Dilek Sabancı.
Freed of monetary problems, the team is ready for the 11-day run in Shanghai. The squad has been in training camp since Sept. 21, reports Samet Öncül, the camp chief and football team coach, adding that the team's adaptation and cohesion is almost complete. Öncül believes that Turkish athletes have a serious chance of clinching medals, especially in individual categories as team sports are influenced by more varied factors.
This year is the first time in history that the Special Olympics head to Asia, and the distance may pose problems for the athletes, but Öncül is not losing any sleep over that matter. Turkish squads have traveled before, about 30 of the athletes have experienced competitions abroad and they can do it again, says the coach. This time the squad is bigger than ever, but this will not be a problem for the athletes, as many of them are familiar to each other from previous organizations.
When asked about the difficulties of working with intellectually disabled athletes, Öncül responds that he finds it more enjoyable. Obviously you need to make more repetitions when you show the moves, says Öncül. But if you are a volunteer, repetition does not bother you. Loving is enough, that is it.
The 40th anniversary
The Special Olympics World Games have grown to become one of the world's leading athletic events since the first competition was held in 1968 in the Mid-western United States' city of Chicago. The events are only a part of the Special Olympics concept, which was developed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of the former United States President John F. Kennedy. Starting as a U.S.-only project, it is responsible for the education and training of 2.5 million intellectually disabled athletes from over 200 countries.
As the event has the purpose of spreading the sports for everyone concept, the Special Olympics World Games fully develops the Olympics spirit, which objects to claims that winning is everything. The World Games in Shanghai prove that for someone, just competing is what matters most.
Turkish coach Samet Öncül's words sums up the spirit: We are doing what we can. We are having a good time.