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Special Olympics Russia: A historic visit - a future direction

Tim Shriver and Special Olympics Russia President Yuri Smirnov at the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sports, Tourism and Youth Affairs (Photo: Special Olympics)
by David Evangelista, President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia

DUBLIN, March 16, 2017 - “In a world that is rife with division, speculation and exclusion, Special Olympics can serve as a counter – balance, a détente, to ease tensions and offer a common and shared commitment that an entire community, indeed a global community, can support fully.” - Yuri Smirnov, President, Special Olympics Russia

As part of an historic visit to the Russian Federation, Dr. Timothy Shriver, together with philanthropist/supermodel and Special Olympics Board of Director member Natalia Vodianova, led a high-level delegation to Moscow to highlight the power of the Special Olympics movement, and to generate increased support and awareness for athletes with intellectual disabilities.

The Moscow visit came at an exciting time for the Special Olympics movement in Russia, which is under new leadership. Special Olympics, the world's largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, currently has more than 120,000 athletes participating in sports in Russia. However, under the leadership of Special Olympics Russia President Yuri Smirnov, it is committed to an expansion plan to grow the Special Olympics program so that it becomes available in all regions across Russia. It is currently available in 60 of the 85 regions in the Russian Federation. Special Olympics Russia also has 88 athletes currently competing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games, which are taking place in Austria. The Winter Games run from the 18th to the 25th of March.

As Chairman of Special Olympics, and a life-long advocate for individuals with ‘different abilities’, Dr. Shriver spoke to a wide range of government ministries, media outlets, and most notably, addressed the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sports, Tourism and Youth Affairs during his visit. In partnership with Special Olympics Russia President Mr. Yuri Smirnov, Dr. Shriver and the Special Olympics delegation accepted the invitation by the Duma as part of a concerted effort to support the continued growth and expansion of the Special Olympics programme in Russia, with a specific focus on developing inclusive programs in primary and secondary schools throughout the nation.

“It is an honor for me to be here today, Mr. Chairman, on behalf of some 5 million athletes, to express our keen interest to support the next phase of Special Olympics Russia programming. Over the next five years, we want to bring the power of our inclusive, #PlayUnified, platform to 10,000 schools throughout the Russian Federation - positioning Special Olympics Russia to lead the world in inclusive sports and youth education programs. This is our goal, this is our vision.”

The visit was supported in large part by Olympic legend and US National Hockey League legend Mr. Vyaheslav Fetisov, who pledged his strong commitment to promote the Special Olympics movement as a valuable national tool not only to support one of the nation’s most marginalized populations, but also as a way to strengthen the availability of grass-roots sport for all. “I am proud to support Special Olympics, both here in Russia and throughout the world, as a way to forge stronger social inclusion for all Russians - through sport,” he said. “The athletes of Special Olympics offer us inspiring examples of courage, determination - and overcoming some of toughest odds, and we need to celebrate this.”

The visit was coupled with an early childhood development program, called Young Athletes, as well as a celebrity Unified Football match. Dr. Timothy Shriver, Mr. Yuri Smirnov, Mr. Slava Fetisov and Moscow-based celebrities all suited up to compete on inclusive teams, together with Special Olympics Russia athletes, at School #79 in Moscow. Supported by Adidas Russia, Coca-Cola Russia, and community partners, the match served as an opportunity for national and local media to showcase the future direction of the Special Olympics Russia organization.

“Today’s youth are not bound by yesterday’s traditions. They are hungry for change today, as they are the owner of tomorrow,” said Dr. Shriver. “It is our responsibility to provide today’s youth with opportunities to cast away exclusionary beliefs, and correct misunderstood perceptions about a population that can, in their own ways, bring greatness to their families, their neighborhoods, their nation.”

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