Special Olympics: Creating a World of Inclusion Through Sports

with Kim Widdess of Special Olympics

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports movement for people with intellectual disabilities, with more than 5.5 million athletes participating across the globe.

Kim Widdess, Senior Vice President of Sports and Competition at Special Olympics, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss the transformative power of sports, which help participants realize their potential, develop physical fitness, and experience joy and friendship.

Posted on:

January 04, 2024

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Special Olympics is the world's largest sports movement for people with intellectual disabilities, with more than 5.5 million athletes participating around the world, the organization uses the transformative power of sports as a catalyst for participants to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, and experience joy and friendship. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Through year-round sports, health, education, and community building, Special Olympics aims to make people with intellectual disabilities more visible in sports and society. Joining me to talk all about this movement is Kim Widdess. She is the Senior Vice President of Sports and Competition at Special Olympics. Kim, thank you so much for being here.

Widdess: Tetiana, thank you for having us and letting us share more about what we do.

Anderson: So just after the culmination of the 2023 World Games in Germany, the chairman of the board of Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, said, and I want to read this, "These games offer the opportunity to bring the world together as few other events can. Here, people with and without disabilities, people of many nations, cultures, beliefs and religions, met as competitors and friends. They defied prejudices through the power of sport." So, you know, I'm wondering, from where you sit, how powerful the sports movement is for this community that is living with intellectual disabilities, that they face daily.

Widdess: Sports is critical. Through sport, we give people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to train, compete, and socialize on the playing field that results in them being able to develop skills, to develop confidence, and to create new friends that extends the community of acceptance around them.

Anderson: And in what ways do you see these games really sort of moving the needle on this prejudice and marginalization that does happen in this community? And are there examples of athletes that really stick out in your mind?

Widdess: Sure, sure. Well, Special Olympics, first of all, is a grassroots organization that operates every day in every community around the world. We're currently in 177 countries with 277 programs. World Games, for us, are the biggest showcase to shine a light on the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities. Since 1968, the first games at Soldier Field in Chicago, we have done 27 World Games. Berlin was the 27th. These games are so important to create opportunities for our athletes at their national level, at their local level, to form acceptance. One great story is of Ablaye, who is one of our athletes from Senegal. He is a person with Down syndrome, so his disability is visible. He also is in a place in Senegal where there is no integrated education and public schools. Simply, if you don't learn, you don't progress in school. So he was unable to progress in school and because of his physical disability, the community wasn't accepting him. He found Special Olympics, he started training with Special Olympics, and his team got selected to go play basketball at the World Games in Berlin. At that event, he won a bronze medal. So now Ablaye returned home wearing his bronze medal in society, learning the skills, and feeling the camaraderie that he did through the whole process. He now is viewed as a champion, no longer as a person who should be stigmatized or ignored. So -- And because of that, because of the skills he learned, he also now holds a permanent job as a construction worker in Senegal. So it's really -- the life-changing aspect of Special Olympics for our athletes and also for their communities and the parents is significant, and that's what we try and deliver through opportunities, through sport.

Anderson: And I wanted to ask you about that exchange, because I know at the World Games that take place year after year, they have something called Host Towns, and they're not only for the athletes to be immersed in another culture, but they're for the people who live there to be immersed in another way of life. Can you just talk a little bit more about that exchange that happens?

Widdess: Sure, sure. So our Special Olympics World Games that we do every two years -- opposite summer, winter. We go opposite the Olympics. We really set ourselves apart because we do these events to make an impact and to create a legacy for our Special Olympics programs at the national level. Host Town Program was an invention of two incredible people, one who is our chairman now, Tim Shriver. The other was the head of the games, Peter Wheeler. And this was born in 1995 at the World Games in New Haven, Connecticut. They wanted to find a way of extending the reach of Special Olympics so that, all over, not just the host city where the games are being held, but all over the state or all over the country, you could feel and experience the joy of inclusion that our athletes bring when they come. So our Host Town Program is something that completely sets us apart. We actually have athletes who come in to the host nation and then they spread out to communities. Those communities raise money to host them, create activities for them for four days before they then come to the main city to compete. And it's really that Host Town Program that creates the legacy that will continue on and build our Special Olympics programing around the world.

Anderson: So the whole community aspect that's built through Special Olympics is extremely powerful. All segments of society are participating in this, including law enforcement. What are they doing when it comes to building awareness, fundraising, and why is that so important to your mission?

Widdess: Yeah, well, you will never find a more dedicated volunteer than you will in our Law Enforcement Torch Run participants. This is another great program that started through the ingenuity of one person, the Chief of Police, Chief Richard LaMunyon, in Wichita, Kansas, who decided he wanted to do something to engage his police force with the society, his community, in a much more -- much stronger way. So Chief LaMunyon created this torch run and did it with Special Olympics. And that one little idea grew into thous-- Hundreds of thousands of police officers across the country and around the world, raising money for Special Olympics every day, volunteering with Special Olympics and becoming mentors to our athletes, as well as becoming our guardians of the Special Olympics Flame. They, just this year, reached $1 billion in support for Special Olympics.

Anderson: That's incredible. Incredible. The history of Special Olympics is -- is long. Where does the organization need to go from here for the next 50 years or so?

Widdess: Yeah. Well, I mean, if you ask us where we want to be in 50 years, we want to be non-existent. We want to be obsolete because people with intellectual disabilities are included in every classroom, they're welcomed into every doctor's office, they are provided equal opportunity on the playing field and off the playing field, in sports clubs, in communities, in parks-and-rec facilities. So our goal would to be nonexistent. But for right now, we're going to continue to fight the fight and try and create more inclusive societies around the world.

Anderson: This is certainly something people are going to want to know more about. So what is your website? Where can they find information?

Widdess: Sure. Like, Special Olympics needs help. We need the support of donors. We need the support of volunteers. You can go to specialolympics.org. No matter where you are in the country, where you are in the world, there is a Special Olympics program. You can find it there and figure out how to get involved.

Anderson: Kim Widdess of Special Olympics, thank you so much for being here.

Widdess: Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to you, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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