Winning from the Start

Reflections on a very Special Olympics

Once again, the Olympic spirit is about to capture the hearts and minds of the entire world. For a brief three weeks, through the venue of sports, humanity strives for an ideal of nations coming together in peace and harmony. This year’s theme for the Summer XXIX Olympiad in Beijing is One World, One Dream.

For the past 12 months, China has been in the business of the Olympics. It is the first country that has had the honor, or courage you could say, to host all three Summer World Games in one year. After the Beijing Summer Olympiad this August, China will keep its magnificent facilities open to the Paralympics, for the world’s physically challenged athletes. And last October, the Special Olympics Summer, for intellectually challenged athletes, took place in Shanghai.

We'd always wondered why the Special Olympics is called Special. We found out, and it left an indelible impression on us.

We’d always wondered why the Special Olympics is called special. We found out why when we received tickets to attend the Special Olympics Summer World Games in Shanghai (October 2-11, 2007). It was a deeply moving experience.

First, a little background is necessary in order to appreciate what the Special Olympics is all about. It’s more than just the Summer and Winter World Games that alternate every two years. It’s an international non-profit organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition. It is a truly global movement, serving 2.5 million people with intellectual disabilities, with more than 200 programs in over 180 countries.

Alcino Pereira the runner

Young people and adults with intellectual disabilities who participate in the Special Olympics develop improved physical fitness, motor skills, greater self-confidence and a more positive self-image. As they grow mentally, socially and spiritually, they exhibit courage and enthusiasm, enjoy the rewards of deeper friendships and ultimately discover not only new abilities and talents but “their voices” as well. A perfect example is Alcino Pereira, a 38-year-old orphan from East Timor who runs with a limp, has a lame arm and is mute, but whose life speaks more than the few words he can mutter.

His father was killed in 1978 in one of the many uprisings in East Timor’s efforts to gain independence from Indonesia. His mother died that same year. He’s the sole Special Olympics representative from East Timor because, as his coach, Afranio Amaral, said, “There are many disabled people in East Timor, but the facilities, the human resources, the understanding is not there.” Discouraging as that may seem, Troy Griesen, head of the Special Olympics for the Asian Pacific region, said that Alcino caught the heart of East Timor’s prime minister and other dignitaries. They see him as a “bright beacon” and message of hope in their world shrouded in darkness.

We had the privilege of seeing Alcino run the 10,000-meter run one overcast day. His arms were flailing left and right. He kept getting passed lap after lap, falling from his bum leg and then picking himself up with dignity and no shame. In time, we couldn’t help but stand up like all the other guests in the bleachers and cheer him on. “GO Alcino GO! Run Alcino Run!” He finished with a smile that could light up Shanghai.

What’s unique about the Special Olympics is that it doesn’t just come for three weeks and then go. As we see from Alcino’s life and others, these athletes are part of an organization that is an ongoing catalyst to change society and the world.

The Special Olympics, in its more quiet and humble way, showed us something that can be lost in the spectacular, politicized and commercialized events soon to begin in Beijing—not that the Special Olympics weren’t spectacular in their own right. How could they not have been, when China took five years to prepare for these Games, mobilizing 40,000 volunteers, opening homes to all 168 nations and their teams so they could experience home-grown Chinese hospitality, setting up for global forums on how families, communities and nations could better understand and facilitate the intellectually disabled. No, when the Special Olympics were over, China had changed, and so had everyone who attended.

As the days went by, hopping from event to event, we noticed how unlike at other World Games, the Special Olympics athletes represented every age, sex and nationality. What surprised us was that they did not come to these Games to compete. Rather, they were at the Games to participate, to encourage, help one another and to finish their events. It was a formula for some very special moments, like the start of the men’s 400 meter relay. Standing on the track waiting for his event to start was a young Chinese boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 years of age. He stood no more than 4½ feet tall and weighed perhaps 60 to 70 pounds. Directly behind him in the next lane was a sprinter who must have been in his late 20s. He stood more than six feet tall and weighed easily more than 180 pounds. The little boy looked at his fellow competitor like David must have looked at Goliath, but unlike the biblical story, there was no battle for supremacy between these two Special Olympians. Prior to the race, there were only pats on the back and expressions of support and respect for each other. Who would cross the finish line first wasn’t of primary importance. What mattered most was taking part and being together.

We also noticed that the Special Olympics were not about the haves and have-nots. In the holding area before one race, we saw athletes sitting on benches waiting to be taken to their lanes. Some wore spiffy Nike track shoes and others had no shoes — just bare feet. Financial status or appearance didn’t seem to matter. The sheer joy of being there, participating together, representing a team and country and completing the event were far more important. By the way, several athletes won with bare feet.

Dustin Cichon the power lifter

An especially memorable athlete was an American power lifter, 19-year-old Dustin Cichon. Dustin is a dwarf or “little person” as he terms it, with a 24/7 positive personality. He comes from Wann, Oklahoma, population 132, so he doesn’t have a coach the year round. But because of his vision, self-discipline and family upbringing, his powerlifting coach in Shanghai, Eddie Reinhardt, said, “Dustin will always be a winner. He’s a natural leader.”

The Chinese loved Dustin and affectionately called him “Ding Ding” or “little strong man.” During a Chinese TV interview one day, the journalist asked him, “So why are you happy all the time, Dustin?” He just chuckled and in a humble voice replied, “Umm, I guess I don’t know any other way to be.”

Dustin went on to win three gold medals and one bronze in his weight division. During each awards ceremony, he was the first to reach out his hand and congratulate the other medal winners. On the last day of competition, he made a point of shaking hands with the Iraqi coach. The coach squatted down to Dustin’s level and they started talking. When asked how his conversation went, Dustin unabatedly stated, “I just wanted to tell the Iraqi coach that I respected him and despite what our countries were going through, I was glad he was here and that he trained his three athletes well. I know they don’t let girls compete in power-lifting like we do. The coach just smiled and said he respected me too and hoped that our countries would someday get along like in the spirit of these Games. We had a great conversation and I’ll never forget it.”

It didn’t matter what place athletes came in. What mattered was that they were making friends, encouraging their teammates and finishing well.

Throughout the week, we witnessed athletes from many different countries encouraging and reaching out to each other. A beautiful African girl represented her country in the 400-meter freestyle swimming event. Immediately after she dove in, it was obvious she was not a fast swimmer. In fact, she finished her race almost two minutes after all the other swimmers touched the wall. But when she did finish, the whole stadium, including all the athletes, jumped up, applauded and cheered her great effort. She had no shame or sense of failure, only the joy of finishing well.

As we watched these special athletes, we were struck by the fact that there were no losers. Every single athlete, no matter how challenging the event, made it to the finish line. It didn’t matter what place they came in. What mattered most was they were at the Special Olympics, making friends, helping and encouraging their teammates and finishing well. In a real sense, these athletes won when they crossed the starting line.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the Special Olympians do have special needs. All have some intellectual and perhaps physical disabilities, so there is a large contingent of coaches and other professionals on hand, ready to take care of any difficulties. They know these special athletes are vulnerable, and they never take their eyes off them, watching for any signs of distress. It can be demanding work, but as one American coach said, “I’ve been working with the Special Olympics for 15 years and it has changed me. After these Special Olympics, I’ll never be the same. This is a profound experience. It does for me what church does for others.”

Coaches and parents of Special Olympians will tell you, “There are days when you think, ‘Hey, who is the one who is really intellectually disabled here, me or them?’” Comments like this made us reflect on the fact that as far as humanity goes, some people may be categorized as physically or intellectually disabled, but their heart may be far bigger than many who are “abled.” And when it comes to hearts, the fact is that we are all disabled spiritually.

But God has taken care of that. Some 2,000 years ago, God the Son or Word became the human being, Jesus (John 1:1, 14), to make us spiritually whole. In God’s eyes, it’s not what we achieve but what Jesus, our Head Coach, makes of us. In him, we are winners from the word “go.” Be a part of God’s team to truly bring about One World, One Dream.

Ned and Christina Graham have a ministry called East Gates International, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that for 20 years has dedicated its time and resources to assisting and equipping the Body of Christ in China through legal distribution of Bibles, building of churches, training/discipleship of pastors and Christian leaders, relief work and many other services. Visit their web site at www.eastgates.org.

Ned and Christina Graham
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