Special Olympics: History, struggles, successes

Hannah Shillo, Entertainment Reporter

Athletes have always been held to a certain standard when it comes to performance.

Showing good sportsmanship, being team players and having a degree of talent in the sports they are playing are just a few of the skills expected of them.

Special Olympics athletes are among the hardest working athletes that exhibit all of the above on top of overcoming other struggles, particularly with their intellectual disabilities.

According to the Special Olympics, an intellectual disability is a term that describes someone with limitations in cognitive functions, communication, self-care and other skills.

Before the Special Olympics evolved, individuals with intellectual disabilities were treated differently than those without disabilities, many of them living in institutions rather than with their families.

The Special Olympics website says Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, saw how unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated, so she wanted to find a way to stop that.

When Shriver noticed many children with intellectual disabilities had no place to play, the website said she decided she would host a summer day camp for those children to focus on what they could do, like sports, rather than what they could not.

Back then, people with these intellectual disabilities were viewed by the general public as less than, which could not be further from the truth, said Vanessa Duncan, Region I assistant director of development for Special Olympics Illinois.

While overcoming their struggles with their disabilities, Duncan said the athletes have showed the best sportsmanship she has ever seen.

“They are competing, but most of them are really into pumping each other up and being supportive of each other,” she said. “In the moment, it’s more about the fun of the game and the sport. We have more parents that are upset than athletes about games.”

During a state women’s basketball game, Duncan said one athlete fell but was helped by another athlete from the opposing team.

The two high-fived each other, ran across the court together and continued the game.

The good sportsmanship and good heartedness they show toward each other while they are competing against one another is one of the many reasons Duncan said she loves her job; she sees this kind of thing happen all the time.

“That characteristic in a person is few and far between in our world of ‘normal’ people,” she said. “Maybe it does take one of our Special Olympics athletes to show a person that you can learn from them about being a better person.”

When she heard federal funding for Special Olympics was not going to be cut, Duncan said she was relieved, but not just for her region and her athletes.

Of the $18 million the government gives to the organization each year, Region I does not see any of it, nor does any part of central Illinois, Duncan said.

However, she said if the funding had been cut, it would have affected Special Olympics Illinois because some of the funds are used for the unified schools in the Chicago land area.

“I don’t want that to affect anybody else,” she said, “especially if they don’t have someone who can plan fundraisers.”

Fundraisers are how Special Olympics Region I gets most of its funding for events.

Duncan, who is in charge of fundraising, said she coordinates and runs 15 different fundraisers each year.

The biggest fundraiser is the Polar Plunge, and she said she hosts about four of those each year.

“We have had such a great community around here that supports Special Olympics, so we have not had to depend on the federal funding,” Duncan said. “The islands, however, are poor, and they get their money from tourism. It’s hard to host a fundraiser for people who are on a day cruise.”

Though they have great community support and plenty of fundraising efforts, Region I still has struggles that they have to overcome daily.

Duncan said because many businesses are struggling economically, her office often sees the repercussions of that.

For the spring games, the organization used to have all of the fruit provided for athletes, coaches and volunteers donated by local grocery stores; however, since those stores are struggling, they are not able to donate as much.

The minimum wage increase has not helped them much, either, Duncan said.

After the requirement for full-time Special Olympics employees to earn at least $48,500 annually, Duncan said they had to make some unwanted changes.

“In our organization, we were all full-time salary, and nobody even made over $40,000,” she said. “As a nonprofit organization, we couldn’t afford to make over that, and here we are being required to make 48.5.”

Duncan, who said she puts in anywhere from 60-80 work hours a week, said she would love to be able to hire more people, but the organization just cannot afford it.

Another change Duncan said she would like to see throughout the organization is how others view the athletes.

Even though the Special Olympics began as a sports organization, Duncan said people did not really view the games as competitive, and the organization was just giving the children a “fun day,” but that is just not true.

“We do have an event for that, and it’s called Special Olympics Family Festival,” she said. “It’s not competition; it’s just a fun day. When it comes to spring games, it’s competitive.”

She said the organization follows the Illinois High School Association’s rules when it comes to its Olympic games, so they are as competitive as they can get.

When the athletes earn their medals, she said, it means so much more to them than if they were just handed it.

Duncan said she wants people to start seeing the Special Olympics athletes as true athletes because, well, they are true athletes.

“When they go out there and play volleyball, they are bumping, setting and spiking the ball,” she said. “They are serving the ball to get an ace.”

The athletes also practice before the games, like any other athlete, in order to be ready for the competition.

Following their motto, “Let me win, but if I can’t win, let me be brave in the attempt,” the athletes are always learning from their experiences and working to be better for the next time, Duncan said.

“These types of athletes are very inspiring,” Duncan said. “I hope that other athletes without disabilities can really see our athletes as equals.”

Hannah Shillo can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].