Why Special Olympics deserves its own gold medal

By Laureus Academy Member Nadia Camaneci
There are not many occasions in life when you can really say you were in at the beginning of something special. 
I was in 2000 when the Laureus World Sports Academy was formed and I was invited to become one of the 30 founder members. Over the years Laureus has grown dramatically and is doing more good around the world than we probably ever dreamed possible.
I have always believed that sport can bridge the gaps in society, and change the way people look at the world and themselves. I am not sure who said ‘if you can play sport together, you can live together’, but they were right. 
I am interested in everything that Laureus does, but I also have a real passion for Special Olympics, the organisation which works with people with intellectual disabilities to create a world of inclusion, where every single person is accepted and welcomed.
The Special Olympics World Games kick off today in Berlin - 7,000 athletes will be there from 170 countries, competing in 24 sports, with 3,000 coaches and 20,000 volunteers.  As a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics, I’m proud to be here in Berlin with my family.  
I have been a supporter of Special Olympics for three decades and it is entirely appropriate that this year is also the 20th anniversary of one of the most unforgettable visits I ever made on behalf of Laureus Sport for Good. 

Special Olympics is not just about a big event like Berlin, important though that is, it’s also about the work done at grassroots level. Back in 2003, along with eight of my fellow Laureus Academy Members – Sebastian Coe, Yaping Deng, Kapil Dev, Michael Johnson, Franz Klammer, Edwin Moses, Robby Naish and Daley Thompson – we went to the Lu Jia Zui School in Shanghai to see for ourselves. 

We were overwhelmed by the welcome we received. The cymbals crashed, the balloons and kites flapped in the wind and more than 100 children with intellectual disabilities, and their families and friends, shouted out their greetings Chinese style.

The school was taking a leading role in the Unified Sports Programme in China, where individuals, with and without mental disabilities, join together in the same teams for training and friendly competition. It has proved to be one of the most powerful tools for changing attitudes, breaking down barriers and promoting integration.
During the visit we took part in classroom lessons and shared games time with the pupils. The highlight was China's Olympic gold medal star Deng Yaping giving table tennis coaching to the youngsters and Michael Johnson and Edwin Moses taking part in a sprint race with some of the pupils. 
Our visit to the school was really emotional. I’m sure it meant a lot to the children that we were able to go and meet them. It certainly meant a lot to the Academy Members. I am always overwhelmed by the love and the passion of the children that I meet through Laureus Sport for Good and Special Olympics. Sport has totally changed their lives and given them so much more to live for.
Laureus has supported Special Olympics programmes around the world for more than 20 years and I am delighted that we are supporting the World Games here in Berlin.
Laureus’ ties with Special Olympics goes back to the very first Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco in 2000, when a special Laureus Sport for Good Award was presented to Eunice Kennedy Shriver to recognise her achievement in founding Special Olympics.
That honour was followed in 2021 when American Chris Nikic, a Special Olympics athlete since he was nine, received the Laureus Sporting Moment of the Year Award after becoming the the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon. It took him over 16 hours, but with every stroke, every pedal and every step he took, he made history. He finished in darkness, with cuts on his knees after falling off his bike twice. 
I remember him saying afterwards ‘You can do things you never thought possible’ and he now wants to show fellow Down syndrome community members they can do a triathlon too. This year he will be competing in all the Marathon Majors. It’s an amazing achievement.

Landmarks are constantly being reached and passed, as Chris has shown us, and it is that kind of never-give-up moment that may inspire the young people coming out of that school in Shanghai, and many others around the world, to make their own individual step forward.

Special Olympics encompasses almost six million athletes with intellectual disabilities in 220 countries, using sport to create an inclusive world for people of all abilities.
So glad and honoured to be a part of such amazing organisations.
See you all in Berlin.

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