On Saturday 18 September, Warsaw was the scene for the opening ceremony of the 2010 Special Olympics European Games. Approximately 1,400 athletes with intellectual disabilities – from 56 different countries around Europe/Eurasia – paraded before the 20,000 enthusiastic fans present in Legia Warsaw’s recently renovated stadium.
Football is one of the sports represented at the gathering, the goal of which is to encourage people without intellectual disabilities to break down barriers and forge new friendships to help build a more welcoming and inclusive society for all. FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, accompanied by football legends Johann Cruyff and Steffi Jones, made the trip to Poland to attend the official opening on Saturday and the first few matches of the seven-a-side women’s football tournament on Sunday.
“We need to have confidence in these competitors, in their ability to play football and to integrate into society. The last FIFA World Cup™ demonstrated that when one instills confidence in people, positive results are not slow in coming,” said Blatter of the regional event.
Three million athletes in 180 countries
The opening ceremony was not short on star quality, with Mick Hucknall, lead singer of well-known British band Simply Red, in attendance. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski declared to participants that it was "a competition in which everyone is a winner".
Sports on the agenda for the week ahead include athletics, badminton, basketball, bowling, power lifting, roller skating, table tennis, tennis and women’s football. There is also a tenth discipline, the Motor Activities Training Programme (MATP), which is specifically designed for athletes with severe mental or physical handicaps.
Special Olympics is a global event for people with intellectual disabilities, held every two years, alternating between Summer and Winter Games. The first Special Olympics Summer Games took place in Chicago in 1968, following on from the success of a summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities set up by eventual Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962. A veritable pioneer in the domain, Kennedy Shriver passed away in 2009.
In 1988, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially endorsed and recognised the Special Olympics competition. 1993 saw the Special Olympics World Winter Games staged outside North America (in Austria) for the first time, and since then the movement has continued to enjoy significant growth. In 2008, the year of its 40th anniversary celebrations, it was able to count three million athletes in over 180 countries worldwide.