“Next week, at the 100-meter race at the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023, you’ll see athletes from Slovakia, from Kenya, from Israel, from Senegal, from Brazil, from China, from Mongolia, from New Zealand. You’ll see all these people competing, and as they’re running the race and they cross the finish line, you’ll see spectators crying.
“I encourage you to ask ‘why’? Why is it that they’re crying? What is it that makes these spectators weep with impression?”
We tend to think that we watch and participate in sports to observe or engage in acts of physical strength and achievement.
And while that is true in the world of Special Olympics, it is also the shared moments of vulnerability that are the most powerful, says Special Olympics Regional President & Managing Director for Europe and Eurasia David Evangelista.
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver [the American philanthropist and sister of former US President John F. Kennedy] founded the Special Olympics in the 1960s to empower people with intellectual disabilities and give them the opportunity to gain their rightful place in society through sport,” said Evangelista in a wide-ranging discussion with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Saturday’s opening ceremony to the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023.
“It’s very important to keep in mind that Mrs. Shriver used sport as the median, because it was one of the most nonpolitical social methodologies in the world. We see that through the way in which sport can convene people from different nationalities, different ideologies, different backgrounds, different creeds… I think there’s no better example of the way in which sport can bring people together than the Special Olympics World Games.”
Special Olympic Israel has sent a 70-person delegation consisting of 35-plus athletes, coaches and mentors competing in a range of sports to the Games, in addition to a wide cadre of families, volunteers and supporters.
“The movement of Special Olympics is incredibly proud that we will be able to welcome Special Olympics Israel to Berlin, a city that knows reconciliation and unity better than most,” exclaimed Evangelista. “I think it’s also a huge source of pride that as a backdrop of these Games in Berlin, that the State of Israel has most recently passed a key piece of legislation that brings Special Olympics athletes in Israel up to par with their national Olympic and Paralympic peers.
“We believe that this is a tremendous gesture from the State of Israel, not only to recognize the brand of Special Olympics, but to recognize the inherent grit, courage, determination and talent that comes from athletes with intellectual disabilities."
“We also think it’s of critical importance that not only has the government made this legislation possible for all people with intellectual disabilities across the country, but they’ve also now changed the way in which they refer to them – “athlete”. Words matter. Individuals with intellectual disabilities who hit the playing field with courage are no longer “participants” or “kids”, but they’re athletes and that’s by national law that they are to be categorized for what they truly are, which are athletes who train and compete and who leave all of their sweat and vigor on the field of play. In a world that dissects language so acutely and so minutely, we’re very proud and honored by the State of Israel, and specifically Minister Miki Zohar, whose leadership has made this tremendous development possible“It’s our hope that ministries of sport and youth across the world will look at the example set by Minister Zohar and the State of Israel in elevating the recognition of this demographic.”
And it isn’t just at the legislative level, but at the corporate level that Israel has stepped up. The participation of Special Olympics Israel in the Berlin Games was made possible through the collaboration of various bodies, including national airline El Al, Sarine Technologies and Toyota Israel, which for the first time in Israel released a commercial featuring people with intellectual disabilities.
“This is something that companies like Toyota, like Coca Cola, UPS, so many others, they’re engaging in this work because they realize it’s not only good for their brand, but it’s good for the morale of their employees, it’s good for their ability to demonstrate the values of their company. And this goes the same for foundations, the same for civic groups, the same for national governments.
“Special Olympics Israel and all Special Olympic national affiliates around the world extend this invitation openly to come to a world where we can see victories without victims, where we can go to a world where our vulnerabilities cannot only unite us, but they can be shared among us. I think that offers the world a new way to act and to be.”
Evangelista’s own connection with the organization began with his father, Steve Evangelista, who founded the Special Olympics branch in his home state of Rhode Island.
“As a child, I always remembered church being a place where Special Olympic athletes and their families would gather around my dad because he was the executive director of this new organization. But it took me some time in my life to recognize that there was a very specific reason why church was the place where I would see these individuals - because church was one of the few places they were welcomed.”
It was through these experiences that Evangelista began to appreciate the lessons portrayed.
“People with intellectual disabilities are unabashedly open, they are the most comfortably vulnerable. They don’t hide that vulnerability… they don’t wear masks, in a pandemic or out of a pandemic.
“The world is a very tough place and it requires self-protection and some of that self-protection is putting on this mask of security and confidence, putting on this mask of strength. When all of us know deep down what brings us together as a human race is not our strength, but rather our weakness. What unites us is not only our understanding, but oftentimes our sheer lack of understanding…Somehow people with intellectual disabilities bring that out of us in a way that we are comfortable with.”
And that’s why thousands of people will come to the Special Olympic World Games in Berlin from 180-plus countries.“We know that sport transcends politics, we know that sport transcends any sort of division. At the end of the day, sport is one of the few things in the world that can actually bring us together in a way that manifests the very best of the human spirit.
“If you consider that countries are made up of individuals, think of the way in which a mother, a father, an aunt and uncle in Israel, maybe in Herzliya, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, maybe these are individuals who have been told their whole lives that their children are shamed… Maybe, these families have been told to not resuscitate their children if they were to ever go to hospital. Maybe, these are families that have been told that they should put their children away into institutions and focus on children who are worth something.
“Maybe these Berlin Games stand as an antidote to all of that which plagues us in the human condition. Maybe Berlin is an invitation to all of us. Not only to witness a sporting event, but to witness perhaps an event of self-discovery.
“What is it that makes so many countries and hundreds of thousands of people from all different walks of life come to Berlin to cheer on a demographic often so invisible? These are the questions that the Special Olympics takes very seriously… and the answers are that we believe that the Special Olympics can bring us to a better part of ourselves.”Like so much in life, it comes back to being open to being vulnerable.
“Vulnerability is really a strength that the athletes of these Games embody. Prejudice is something prevalent in many societies.The movement of Special Olympics, through the example set by its athletes, repositions weakness in such a way where vulnerability is used as an opportunity to expose the truth of oneself.
“Vulnerability is, at its essence, the adhesive that can bring you and I together. Strengths cannot do that. Strengths are what drive ego, strengths are often what drive opinion. Vulnerability is something that we know is the sticky part of our souls, that can relate to one another. Because even in those quiet moments that we keep to ourselves, we know inherently what we’re good at and bad at. We know our deficits, we know our imperfections.
“The movement of Special Olympics celebrates that and underscores the fact that it’s not about being THE best. it’s about being YOUR best.
Evangelista went further with his vision
“What if all of us gave the very best of ourselves, not in competition with but in solidarity of what could this world be now? This is not meant to be a romantic question; it is meant to be one that’s very pragmatic – if we were to provide a multiplier effect of everyone around the world – or potentially any one of the 180 countries that will be coming to the Games – what could our world look like if we exchanged the egocentric nature of strength and we replaced it with the unifying nature of vulnerability?
“Would we have so much division? Or would we then inherently understand that while we may not share the same deficits, we certainly share imperfection. And while we may not share the same creed, we do share the same questions. While we do not share the same backgrounds or faiths, we do want, we do share the same yearning to reach that higher level of consciousness so that we can bring forth in this world something better, not only for the world, but for and from ourselves.
“This is why people with intellectual disabilities finish races and embrace their supporters. This is why people with intellectual disabilities are incredibly grateful and gracious. This is why people with intellectual disabilities are often misunderstood –they’re bringing forward a more powerful vision that the world doesn’t yet have a sufficient level of consciousness for. That’s what it appears to me.”
And Evangelista invites every member of society to be a part of something better, of something higher, of something deeper.
“Disability and inclusion is a cross-cutting element of society. People with intellectual disabilities come from all walks of life. This is not an economic question. This is not a political question. This is not a social class question.
“We ask all companies to consider pledging their corporate social responsibility to one of the most electric parts of Israeli society. We ask all family foundations, corporate foundations, if you’re interested in putting forth a footprint on the world of sport and inclusion, to look at the work of Special Olympics Israel. If you’re a national government, follow the example of Minister Zohar, take the step to put this work into legislation, allow your country to celebrate the very best of those who, oftentimes, are not given a seat at the table.
“Civic leaders like Lions Clubs International often a great example – activating volunteerism around inclusion for over 20 years. Consider following their example – consider coming to Special Olympics events, meet the athletes, speak to the moms and dads, support the coaches, thank the owners of the sports facilities, thank the vendors, the printing press, who all support this shared vision.
“Thank the bus driver at the local center. Thank the grandmother who makes sure that her grandson is able to make his basketball practice every week, go out and high-five the athlete, whether they’re in fifth, first or eighth place.
Appreciate that these are individuals who are overcoming odds that the world is only now waking up to understanding. Because deep down, we know that we cannot truly appreciate the entrenched stigma that this population faces every day.
“And while we potentially cannot appreciate it, we can serve as an antidote against it and we can make it a thing of the past.”
Evangelista mentioned many ways to get involved
“Please visit www.specialolympicsisrael.org, call the national office, ask for information on your local events, local opportunities to volunteer. We have programs in sports, in schools, programs of specialized clinical training for doctors, we have family support programs, we have early childhood development programming, we have refugee programming, Special Olympics Israel welcomes the engagement of the whole nation, as in fact, inclusion is the work of the nation.
“Minister Zohar and the government bravely took ownership of this theme, not as a project, but as an underlying value of the country. We welcome the opportunity for people to donate, but most importantly, we ask the Israeli people to give their time and volunteer.
“Nothing is more electric than visiting a Special Olympics event, where you can feel the energy, you can feel that exuberance that comes from an unabashed display of vulnerability. And I think at the end of the day, what we all derive from that engagement is deep strength, but not strength in the conventional way of muscle and power, but strength in the way of competence, understanding, depth.”
So why are there so many tears shed after a race?
“There’s many ways to explain it, but it takes vulnerability to recognize the why,” Evangelista reflected.
“In the world of Special Olympics, when you hit the pitch, when you hit the court, when you hit the slopes when you jump in the pool, when you hit the track, it’s not only an expression of your courage and determination, but it’s also a message to the world - ‘I am here, I deserve to be called an athlete, I deserve to be watched. Like any athlete, I deserve to be supported. I deserve to have my mom and dad be proud of me!’
“When we all become comfortable with that vulnerability, that’s when we’re bringing forth real social inclusion – the kind that makes you feel powerful – and not power in a corrupt sense – power in a sense that you know inherently that you’re bringing forth to the world something that is valuable, meaningful, significant and real.
“And I think in a world that’s become so pixelated and so virtual, when we speak of an intelligence that is now artificial rather than emotional, I think the world is yearning for something real, something they can actually believe in.
“That’s the power of Special Olympics.”