Football has the power to change lives, generate intense emotions and promote health, friendship and respect. These values are prevalent in the outstanding work undertaken by UEFA's social responsibility partner, Special Olympics.
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics provides opportunities in a wide variety of sports to more than 4.2 million athletes with intellectual disabilities in over 170 countries.
The Special Olympics-UEFA partnership began in 1998, and the main objective is to involve more players with intellectual disabilities in football. Special Olympics is an international body that brings life-changing experiences by encouraging and empowering people with intellectual disabilities through sport – giving them the chance to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship.
UEFA nurtures partnerships with a carefully selected number of organisations, in particular through its Football for all Abilities portfolio, which fosters the use of football as a tool for broadening the inclusion of players of all abilities, as well as marginalised or excluded groups.
Special Olympics' excellent work across the globe affords people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to discover their sporting talents and derive a real sense of personal achievement and growth in doing so.
Dr Stan Shepherd is medical director for Special Olympics Great Britain. "A wide range of conditions can cause intellectual disability," he says. "There are many congenital genetic-based syndromes. One of the most common is Down's syndrome, another is Fragile X syndrome. Then there are other conditions that are the result of, for example, a problem during delivery at birth."
Special Olympics sport offers people with intellectual disabilities a positive purpose and feeling of belonging – and football plays a special role. "The benefits are massive," Dr Shepherd explains. "With football, the first thing to remember is that someone with intellectual disability has precisely the same emotions as everyone else. So when they play football, they experience exactly the same excitement, the same challenges, the same joy as anyone else who plays football.
"Having an intellectual disability can make your life very lonely and isolated – but because football is a team game, this automatically gives our athletes the whole experience of being part of a team. So they share the experience of training together, playing together, winning and losing together. In addition, any sporting activity is going to increase your self-confidence and your self-reliance – it's going to motivate you to get fit, to exercise, to train, to eat a healthy diet and to live a healthy life. Sport brings inclusion and not exclusion ... It brings togetherness, and not isolation."
Dr Shepherd praises the thousands of volunteers who devote their time to coaching and assisting Special Olympics athletes worldwide, and says their dedication and encouragement is crucial. "We must pay tribute to the phenomenal commitment of the Special Olympics coaches. They all do it in their own time and for no money. Through your coach, anybody who plays a sport is going to get stretched, is going to do things they didn't think they could do or didn't believe they could do.
"Think what this means as a boost to the athletes' self-confidence and self-worth. Away from Special Olympics, they are in a world where people are telling you you can't do things. Here, they are in a world which is saying not only can you do things – you can even believe you can exceed your own expectations. That's one of the powers of Special Olympics."
UEFA's backing of Special Olympics lends a special seal of approval to the organisation's sterling work. "As an athlete with intellectual disability playing football, the fact that UEFA supports you means a huge amount," Dr Shepherd reflects. "It means that UEFA, the governing body of the most popular sport in the world, takes you seriously. It's massively important."
There are very sound medical reasons for Special Olympics athletes playing sports and getting fit. "People with intellectual disability suffer more long-term conditions than the rest of the population," says Dr Shepherd. "Diabetes, raised blood pressure, risk of heart attacks and strokes, etc. They get these long-term conditions at a younger age, and they can often have a worse outcome than the rest of the population.
"Physical fitness and living a healthy lifestyle are a major defence against diabetes, so football – the motivation, physical fitness, healthy diet and lifestyle – is actually improving health and life expectancy."
Joy, pride and achievement are at the heart of the Special Olympics athletes' experience. Dr Shepherd was recently involved in the Special Olympics Great Britain National Summer Games, which engaged some 1,700 athletes from England, Scotland and Wales, all with intellectual disabilities. He presents two examples of the sheer pleasure generated by the games. "The mother of an athlete said to us: 'You have treated us like royalty.' This can be put in contrast with the exclusion that people with intellectual disabilities may be confronted with. Then, an ambulance driver who had attended hundreds of events told us: 'After all the events I've been to, I have never seen so many smiling faces.'"
Special Olympics can feel justifiable pride in the magnificent work it is doing to furnish sportsmen and women with moments of joy that they will never forget.
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