“We are proud to be involved in basketball, it’s a great honor for us,” said Thomas Schwenkewitz at the Special Olympics North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in the city of Bonn, Germany. western Germany, early September.
The Special Olympics are athletic competitions for people with mental and physical disabilities.
The 31-year-old wears her long hair in a braid and was a little out of breath after the warm-up. Thomas had previously competed in several Special Olympics NRW, as well as the national equivalent. He works in the carpentry department of a workshop for disabled people. “Woodworking”, as he puts it.
He and his teammates practice after work every Friday, which Thomas said they all enjoyed immensely. He has been playing basketball since he was seven years old and enjoys watching his favorite sport on TV. But he thinks the fact that it’s not possible for people with disabilities to play professional basketball makes the existence of the Special Olympics all the more important. They are great for making new contacts and friendships, Schwenkewitz pointed out. “And, of course, for fun.”
Under the aegis of the IOC
Approximately five million athletes from more than 170 countries compete under the auspices of the Special Olympics. In an effort to create as level a playing field as possible, there is a classification system that puts athletes into different categories based on the degree of their disability.
Since the Special Olympics are recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), some Olympic traditions like the Torch Relay take place. Unlike the Olympics, however, the focus is more on participating than winning.
The Special Olympics World Games include opening and closing ceremonies similar to the Olympics
The German national association, Special Olympics Germany, has 14 regional chapters, including that of North Rhine-Westphalia, which organized the games in Bonn.
Due to the principle of athletic advancement, which Special Olympics Germany adheres to, athletes are required to meet certain competition criteria to qualify for national or international events.
Since 2020, national competitions have been held in Germany every two years, alternating between summer and winter games. The Special Olympics World Games, which are to be held in Berlin in 2023 – and therefore in Germany for the first time, also follow a two-year cycle. The last winter games were held in Graz in 2021 and in 2019 the summer games were held in Abu Dhabi.
Break down barriers, enable participation
In addition to athletic competitions, all Special Olympics events include health promotion and prevention programs. These specifically target people with mental and physical disabilities, as they often have less access to the healthcare system, but at the same time are subject to greater health risks. Raising awareness of and eliminating these barriers is another priority for Special Olympics.
The right of persons with disabilities to have access to sport is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Among other things, it states that every individual has the right to be an equal part of society. The primary objective is not to integrate people with disabilities a posteriori, but to create structures allowing unrestricted participation for all from the outset. And that includes participation in sports activities in an appropriate form.
However, it’s not always easy for athletes, even at the Special Olympics. Leonie Rapphahn has been playing basketball since 2016 and these were her second NRW Games.
She first had to get used to the event, and especially to the number of people, “because I can’t judge them very well”, explains Léonie. What the 16-year-old loves most about basketball is throwing hoops and winning. Despite her difficulties with so many people involved, Léonie would like to participate in the Special Olympics again.
Special Olympics gives athletes with disabilities the chance to participate and compete in their favorite sport
More than just sporting events
In addition to the traditional teams in which Schwenkewitz and Rapphahn play, there are also so-called “unified teams”. Here, people with and without disabilities compete on the same team.
Observers are appointed to ensure that people are really playing together and that no one team member is trying to dominate a game. However, according to Stefan Hübner, the Special Olympics coordinator for basketball in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, this is rarely a problem because participants generally buy into the idea that the main objective is to s have fun.
Another advantage of participating in the Special Olympics is that it gives some athletes the opportunity to travel very far – such as to Abu Dhabi, where the last World Games were also held.
“Some of them move around a bit,” Hübner said.
Yet, as Rapphahn noted, the top priority will always be the ability for people like her to actively participate in the sport of their choice.
“It’s my sport, I just feel free,” she said.
This article has been translated from German.