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The Harmful Myth About Special Olympics Athletes We Must Address

Recently, former California Governor and action film icon Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video with Special Olympians. He captioned the video with “These guys inspire me.”  As heartwarming and encouraging as this video is, an internet troll committed on the video, saying “The Olympics are for the best athletes in the entire world to compete against each other to determine who is the best. Having retards [sic] competing is doing the opposite.”

Schwarzenegger responded to this spiteful internet troll, emphasizing that, “As evil and stupid as this comment is, I’m not going to delete it, or ban you (yet), because it’s a teachable moment.”  Usually, troll comments don’t bother me.  But as a sister of a Special Olympic swimmer, this troll’s comment got under my skin.

To get some perspective, I asked my brother John, the Special Olympic swimmer, about his thoughts on this situation. He said, “I understand his mind set, trying to compare the Special Olympics to the Olympics. But this is not the best way of sharing his opinion. He sees the Special Olympics as more of a pity party than a real athletic competition.”

To me, this unfair perception of the Special Olympics is without a doubt the most annoying stereotype. Too many people think that just because someone has a physical, mental, and/or developmental disability, they are limited in all abilities.  For example, historical figure Helen Keller did require help with self-care. Yet she was able to make incredibly significant contributions to society. Even modern disabled celebrities, like musician Stevie Wonder, actress Marlee Matlin, inventor Ralph Braun, and world renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking don’t let their disabilities limit them. They work with their disabilities. Each are influential pioneers in their fields.

A few years ago when I went to see John compete in the Special Olympics, I passed by the gymnastics competitions. A girl about 10 to 12 years old with Down syndrome was on a balance beam. She did two perfect back flips. My jaw dropped in amazement. Never in a million years could I stand on a balance beam, let alone do a back flip.

John has also been surprised by the abilities of other Special Olympians. While John was going up to the official podium to get his silver medal, he saw another swimmer who won a gold medal in his competition. Unlike all of the other swimmers, this swimmer was paraplegic. John couldn’t help but go up to him and tell him that he was “So hard core!”

As in all athletics, you have to qualify, train, and compete in local games in order to make it to the regional Special Olympics. Then the top Special Olympians at the regional games can qualify for the World Special Olympics. While competing in the regional Special Olympics, athletes can also face disqualification if they perform incorrectly. This happened to John when he incorrectly performed the butterfly stroke. As disappointed as he was, he understood that he needed to practice harder.

The Special Olympics emphasizes that participants must work hard for their team and have good sportsmanship. Yet each athlete is challenged to the best of their abilities. Despite what some uninformed people like that internet troll might think about the Special Olympics, the athleticism is real and the best of the best win.

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