This article is part of our special report Special Olympics 2014.
SPECIAL REPORT: More than ten thousand people gathered at the Special Olympics’ opening ceremony to watch athletes with intellectual disabilities launch the games, in Heizel, on 13 September.
Two thousand contestants representing 58 countries are competing in ten different sports this week. Mark Vanlombeek, the spokesperson for the European Special Olympics said the number of people present was “a terrific boost for our athletes as they begin competition”.
The event aims at giving the opportunity to people with intellectual disabilities to train, participate and meet other contestants through sports. It is also a way to raise awareness and change discriminatory attitudes in the society towards people with intellectual disabilities.
Anne-Marie Reid, a Special Olympics athlete from the UK who is competing in swimming, said that the international character of the event makes other people aware “that even if we have a disability, others shouldn’t see us different”.
“We are no different,” Reid continued. “We should be able to do what they all do just with what we have.”
Iulia Frunz?, a tennis table player from the Republic of Moldova said she doesn’t feel different compared to the others.
“I only feel different because while having a disability, I still manage to integrate very quickly in a new group,” Frunz? said. “The disability made me more active and turned me into an extrovert.”
Both, Reid and Frunz? trained for over a year in order to prepare for the competition. Asked how they feel when they play their chosen sports, Frunz? replied she feels strong. Reid said even if she has a disability, she feels accomplished because she has achieved in sports more than she ever thought.
Apart from the athletes and their families, almost four thousand volunteers joined the special Olympics to offer support in organising the event. Annick Van Alsenoy from Belgium said it was an honour for her to help the athletes.
Van Alsenoy was responsible to guide and transport a Serbian athlete during the opening ceremony. She said she admires the courage of the contestants because of their strength. She also convinced her children to volunteer.
The European Union funded the event with €1.7 million, becoming one of the biggest contributors. In an interview with EURACTIV, Androulla Vassiliou, the EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth said that starting from 2015, the EU will have a dedicated European week of sports. It will also allocate funds for projects for people with intellectual disabilities through Erasmus+ programme.
“The event was absolutely amazing,” said Reid. “I wouldn’t change the experience of being here for anything in the world.”