Column: Special Olympics put the world in a new light

Janet Stevens Published Mar 14, 2014 at 12:11AM

Oregon’s Special Olympics winter games were held at Mt. Bachelor last weekend and combined with an experience I had afterward, they left me with plenty to think about. I’ll admit I’m also biased about them — my youngest daughter is a Special Olympics athlete, and I follow the organization and its various competitions closely.

The games themselves were, as they always are, worth watching. The athletes who participate frequently must overcome challenges that make the “normal” people around them look like slackers, for one thing.

It’s almost impossible not to tear up after watching a young man with cerebral palsy fall during a race, struggle to his feet and make it across the finish line. That one such man who did so this weekend was inspiring; that he won his race was frosting on that particular cake.

The number of volunteers who make the whole thing work is also inspiring, at least in my book.

Many come to the Special Olympics as I did, because of a family member or because they work with the intellectually disabled. But many others come for other reasons: An invitation from a friend on an unfilled Saturday led at least one woman to what’s become a decade-long involvement with the games. Some volunteers coach, others provide the one-on-one assistance some athletes need to compete, others act as timers, record keepers, head counters — you name it.

Watching the games can put the world in a new light.

It was during the awards ceremony Sunday that another parent and I got to talking about Lance Armstrong. We were watching people who, within their personal limits, trained hard and competed hard, as Armstrong no doubt did.

Yet not one of them even dreamed of cheating, whether with drugs or by some other means. There was no bullying, no intimidation. There were no lies. These athletes just went out and did their damnedest with the bodies most were born with.

And boy, were they happy about winning. Some were vocal about it, some greeted their ribbons with broad grins and a few had to be persuaded to leave the medals podium.

By contrast, after the awards ceremony was over, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things. While there, my daughter and I saw a young man, intellectually disabled, whose mother had allowed him a bottle of soda.

He was thrilled, to put it mildly, and he let everyone nearby know about it. Soda is a rarity in his household, clearly, and he was having a whopping good time with his special treat.

Unfortunately, not everyone was as thrilled as he. One man said something like, “Is everyone here retarded?” a comment I assume was aimed at the young man and his mother.

And that got me. Last Wednesday, was the annual “Spread the Word to End the Word” action day, an awareness-raising effort driven by the Special Olympics. The word in question is “retarded” and its variations, and I’d been thinking about it. It’s a word that cuts those with intellectual disabilities to the quick — they know they have difficulties not shared by the general population and they know an insult when they hear one.

All of which led me to do something I almost never do (a public scene maker I’m not). I walked over to the man and, politely, I hope, asked him if he was aware of what an insult his language was. He wasn’t happy and he let me know it, though finally he apologized and hurried off.

That man, with his ignorance and lack of good manners (didn’t his parents teach him to say nothing if he couldn’t say something nice?) nearly took the pleasure of the winter games away from me. Nearly.

In the end, the games, the athletes and the volunteers won out. People doing good because they can are always a pleasure, I’ve found. People doing their best and being happy not only about their own accomplishments but about their friends’ accomplishments as well are worth hanging out with. No man with a thoughtless insult can take that away from me or from anyone, athlete or volunteer, who took part in the Special Olympics last weekend.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.