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The growth of Special Olympics in Africa: winning over one heart at a time

"We grew just from 200 athletes in the region to 220,000", Special Olympics Africa is on the rise. Kenya athletes at Special Olympics (Photo: GEPA pictures)
by Dovile Seduikyte, AIPS Young Reporter, Lithuania

GRAZ, March 26, 2017 – “Why do you do what you do in life? To be happy. Happiness is the ultimate goal. Most of the people that are here are happy. Medal or no medal,” president and managing director of the Africa region Charles Nyambe says, commenting on the biggest accomplishment of Special Olympics.

He came into office in 2004 and since then saw the development of Special Olympics in Africa. But there is still a big mountain to climb.

“We grew just from 200 athletes in the region to 220,000. That is our philosophy. If we have 10 athletes today, how can we get 20 tomorrow? But the negative attitude towards people with disabilities is still present in Africa. It‘s an everyday battle. It‘s not something you can say you achieved,” reminds Nyambe.

Stigmas

One of the biggest tragedies the person can experience is being discriminated for something they are not responsible for. In Africa there is still quite a lot of prejudice that surrounds people with disabilities.

Nyambe saw parents who did not want to raise their kids because they have intellectual disabilities. Depending on the religious beliefs of the community, such people can be completely isolated.

“People don‘t want to be associated with those with intellectual disabilities, they hold back. It is a tragedy. Your wife can have a baby with intellectual disability any day. You just never know. But those stigmas still exist.

“If we change three or four attitude of people we have done our job. To conquer the world you have to win over one heart at a time,” Nyambe explains.

The power of sports

This is the reason why Special Olympics are the right tool to involve people with intellectual disabilities. It works. Sports are the perfect instrument to connect people.

Before becoming an official within the organization Nyambe was a volunteer and was a coach for athletes with disabilities. What he witnessed was special.

“They get out of their cocoon. They leave the shyness behind and become confident in the field. You can sit all day with them making jokes, give them the drinks or food they like, but they won‘t smile. The moment you throw the ball and they start playing, they start laughing. That brings out the inner person. It‘s magical,” says Nyambe.


President and managing director of SO Africa Charles Nyambe (Photo:Special Olympics Africa)

Africa Unified

It is a transformation not just for people with disabilities, but the ones they are playing with. Unified sport gives the chance for people to see what the person next to them can be once they are in a comfortable space.

“Some were underestimating [athletes with intellectual disabilities] but they are playing better than them. Maybe they are not that good at class, but in the field they can be better than others.”

Of course there are other ways to raise awareness, but there is one big difference, stresses Nyamble: “A lot of people are advocating and trying to get the proper rights but this doesn‘t empower them individually. Yes they can get government grants but they might end up at their parents‘ pockets. Sports is ideal for actual individual.“

Mr Nyambe is convinced that his delegation will go home satisfied even though the reasons can be very different. For some it can be the joy of meeting a favorite celebrity, for others to be at an airplane.

No matter what it is – their life is changed forever“.

Follow Dovile on Twitter @DovileSeduikyte

The Young Reporters Programme has been made possible thanks to the support of the European Union's Erasmus + programme


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