The modern Olympic Games, first held in Athens’s Panathenaic Stadium in 1896, sought to revive the legendary spirit of Greece’s ancient Panhellenic Games. This spirit, as understood by the revivalists, included the somewhat paradoxical premise that athletic competition can lead to greater solidarity between competitors.
A form of this same idea underlies the mission of Special Olympics. The elegantly simple combination of the goal of a world where all are included with the idea that sport can seed inclusion has made an impact on millions around the world—not only five million Special Olympics athletes in 170 countries, but on their families, communities, and networks as well.
One community that is of particular importance for Special Olympics is the school. A year ago, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation announced a major three-year collaboration with Special Olympics to support significant international expansion of Special Olympics’ Unified Schools and Unified Sports work. Unified Sports and Unified Schools programming creates opportunities for inclusive sport and youth leadership development for students with and without intellectual disabilities. The “Play Unified. Learn Unified.” project focuses on harnessing the power of school-based programming in Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, Serbia, Chinese Taipei, and Tanzania.
Over the first year of the SNF-supported expansion of the program, more than 10,000 athletes of all abilities have taken part in unified play, many hundreds of Unified Sports Coaches have been trained, and hundreds of schools have joined the unified movement.
The aims of “Play Unified. Learn Unified.” extend beyond the playing field and the school; social inclusion is a universal goal, not limited to specific contexts. In addition to providing support for expanded school programming, SNF has also striven to take a unified approach in other areas.
Each year, SNF’s annual Summer Nostos Festival includes an evening run on Olympic Day. Since its inception, the run has been held in partnership with Special Olympics, and Special Olympics Athletes have taken part. This year’s Festival also included unified activities for people with and without intellectual disabilities, including basketball, soccer, bocce, and table tennis, organized in collaboration with Special Olympics Hellas. Earlier this year, SNF provided support to Special Olympics Hellas in expanding to reach young athletes in 21 cities around Greece.
SNF believes deeply in the power of sports to drive positive and necessary social change, whether play takes place in a refugee community in Lebanon or on a rooftop in Harlem.
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” The Special Olympics athlete oath reminds us of the importance of process—inclusion is an ongoing habit, not a box to be checked—and tells us that this process may require entering unfamiliar territory. SNF is very proud to support Special Olympics in forging ahead into a new world, one in which respect and inclusion extend to all.