Kolkata, May 19, 2017: Athletes with intellectual disabilities from West Bengal who won medals for India at the Special Olympics World Winter Games this year were today felicitated at the Calcutta Sports Journalists Club. The event was organized by NGO Special Olympics Bharat-West Bengal to honour seven athletes from the state who were among the medals at the games held in Austria in March.

While Robina Khatun, Sufia Khatun, Mabiya Khatun and Srabanti Bag were part of the girl’s floor hockey team that won bronze, Rabiul Gazi and Rahim Mallick were part of the gold winning boy’s football team. They were among 93 athletes who represented India at the games along with 23 coaches. India won 37 gold, 10 silver and 26 bronze medals.

An Olympian success no doubt, and far bigger in scale than anything Indian athletes have achieved at the more popular Olympic Games till date. Without discounting the effort put in by the athletes at the Olympic Games, one can’t but point out at the huge difference in media, corporate and larger social attention they receive. Why is the same enthusiasm missing for the Special Olympics athletes?

This graphic shows the Special Olympics logo – several iconic human figures connecting with each other with their hands on a sphere symbolizing the globe. The figures are in red colour, while the sphere is in white. There is text below the sphere that says ‘Special Olympics’ in bold lettering in grey. Below the logo is written the Special Olympics athlete oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt.” Source for the Special Olympics logo and athlete oath is www.specialolympics.org

Lina Bardhan, Area Director, Special Olympics Bharat-West Bengal emphasized: “There is a need to highlight the special nature of the efforts and achievements of the Special Olympics athletes again and again. Not only will this make larger society aware about intellectual disabilities but also motivate the athletes to achieve new milestones and overcome social marginalization.”

Talking about the transformative potential of sports for people with intellectual disabilities, she said: “What they may not be able to achieve through studies, they may through excellence in sporting activities. Sports and Special Olympics can be the means through which they discover themselves anew and articulate their identity to society.”

According to a media release issued by Special Olympics Bharat-West Bengal, the Special Olympics are an international sports movement where individuals with intellectual disabilities are provided opportunities to participate in training and competitions at the local, state, national and international levels.

In that sense, the Special Olympics are more than just an international competitive sporting event – the way the Olympic Games or the Paralympics are. See inset below for a comparison between the Special Olympics and Paralympics.

Inset: How Paralympics and Special Olympics differ? Eligibility: Special Olympics welcome all people with intellectual disabilities ages two and older, irrespective of ability levels. Paralympics are mainly for people with physical disabilities, who have to achieve sports-specific qualifying marks for inclusion. Sporting philosophy: Equalability forms the foundational principle of Special Olympics – people compete in groupings with others of similar ability levels. Participation is more important in Special Olympics than winning. Paralympics, on the other hand, lay considerable emphasis on a stringent qualifying process and competition. Organizational structure: Special Olympics is more in the nature of a grassroots social movement that emphasizes sports, health care and community inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. Paralympics are run by the International Paralympics Committee, mainly for athletes with physical disabilities. Source: Media release issued by Special Olympics Bharat-West Bengal

The Special Olympics are recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and thankfully, government support is not missing altogether. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India has accorded the event a multi-disciplinary federation status and supports training and participation in international events. The West Bengal government has also been supportive of the Special Olympics and at the last International Day of Persons with Disabilities rewarded athletes and coaches from the state.

As a movement, the Special Olympics started about 48 years ago in USA (in West Bengal about three decades ago), with its goal being to serve the cause of people with intellectual disabilities. In spite of being one of the largest disability groups worldwide, people with intellectual disabilities remain one of the most socially isolated and underserved populations in terms of education, health care and other opportunities.

To quote the media release again, “The Special Olympics Model of Change combines sports, health, education and community building to facilitate and engage in experiences that are transformative – not just for people with intellectual disabilities but for all who engage with open hearts and minds.”

Special Olympics Bharat-West Bengal runs a number of programmes, which include training in special and inclusive schools, sports clinics, sporting events and collaboration with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for grassroots outreach.

Here’s hoping that the Special Olympics movement gains strength in West Bengal and India and lives up to its transformative potential!

Main photo credit: Shampa Sengupta (photograph shows athletes – from left to right – Rabiul Gazi, Srabanti Bag, Sufia Khatun and Robina Khatun at the felicitation event held at the Calcutta Sports Journalists Club).