Special olympics – Achieving your personal best

An Olympic medal! Who hasn’t dreamt of that at some time in their life? And for Christian Gerro of L’Arche Antigonish, Canada, his dream has now become a reality. Christian joined 7000 other competitors with an intellectual and multiple disabilities in Berlin, Germany for the 2023 Special Olympics World Games.

Cheered on by his community, Christian said he went to Berlin “with the spirit of winning for L’Arche”. And he did just that! Christian proudly returned home not just with a bronze in the 400-metre relay, but the Gold medal in the standing long jump competition.

The Special Olympics and L’Arche are driven by the same goals. Tim Shriver, the movement’s Chairperson spoke to L’Arche’s International Federation Assembly in Atlanta in 2012: ‘The Special Olympics began out of a determination to shift the culture, to emphasize the dignity of every human being. It gives people opportunities that they never would have had otherwise.’

The SO movement was inspired by Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy, sister of the assassinated US President, JFK. Eunice was scandalized by society’s negative attitude to people with intellectual disabilities. For her, this was personal: her older sister Rosemary had an intellectual disability, and they were very close. But in her early 20s, Rosemary had been put away in an institution, following a botched lobotomy operation, which took away her power of speech. Rosemary was just one tragic example of the rejection that can happen when a society doesn’t face up to something it does not understand. Tim Shriver tells how his mother was determined to end discrimination against disabled people: ‘She thought that if we can show their ability as champions, we would recognize that each has a gift.’

Special Olympics Opening ceremony in Stadium Berlin, June 17, 2023

Like L’Arche, the Special Olympics has blossomed over time: from its first event in a field in Chicago in 1968, today over 5-6 million athletes take part in hundreds of thousands of SO events each year in –so far- 188 countries. 99% of its work-force are volunteers.

The motto of these games in Berlin could have been made for L’Arche: “#TogetherUnbeatable”. L’Arche is all about great teamwork between people with and without a disability, so that each person can attain their own personal best. It is a ‘with and without ‘win-win’.

Many members of L’Arche take part in Special Olympics events local to them. And some, like Christian get to travel to the World Games. As well as Christian from Antigonish, Alexis Dupont, a world class swimmer from L’Arche Grasse, France won the Silver medal in 25m crawl.

And in addition, Gerson Alvarenga from Arche Tegucigalpa in Honduras also took part, winning two bronze medals in boccia, supported by physiotherapist Alejandra Gonzalez. Interviewed after his achievement, Christian was asked, ‘Why is sport, and especially these big events, important for you?’ He named three benefits: ‘Making new friends. Show people what I can do. Stay healthy and fit. Make my body strong.’

For Gerson as well, while proud of his success, the Special Olympics are about something bigger than sport: ‘We felt good. It was a nice trip in Germany. We met new people, many cultures, new places. And we brought back 3 bronze medals in the sport of Boccia!’

Gerson Alvarenga from Arche Tegucigalpa in Honduras, in boccia competition

Clearly, the Special Olympics has literally been a games-changer for millions of people with and without a disability. But this is just the start. Ultimately, sport is a springboard to advance the cause of inclusion in all areas of society. Tim Shriver: ‘the bigger campaign is to challenge governments to live their commitment to Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They’ve committed but mostly, there’s been no action. The goal is to find a way for each to have a fair game; so each has a chance to win.’

Alejandra bears witness to the power of this inclusive vision: ‘Participating has changed my life; I am more confident; to see that dreams can be fulfilled when you set your mind to it. With conviction and effort, dreams come true.’

L’Arche is proud to stand side by side with the Special Olympics, and anyone else committed to the global campaign to make inclusion work.

Athletes and their teams

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