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Special Olympics Unified Volleyball takes Serbia by storm

Unified teams from Special Olympics Poland and Special Olympics Serbia shake hands ahead of their match in the divisioning day of European Unified Volleyball Tournament in Zrenjanin, Serbia. (Photo: Special Olympics)
by Aoife O'Grady, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia

ZRENJANIN, June 11, 2018 - Eleven teams comprising 110 athletes from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Germany, Montenegro, Poland, Russia, Serbia and Slovakia descended on the city of Zrenjanin in Serbia for the Special Olympics European Unified Tournament from 6 to 10 June 2018.

Unified Sports

Over two days, tournament matches at the Kristalna Dvorana and Medison Sports Halls saw athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play together in a quest for gold. Special Olympics Unified Sports join people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team as athletes and partners. It is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

Following 33 intensive matches, Russia, Serbia team I and Serbia team II emerged as the winners in their respective divisions. Filip Paunovic, a Special Olympics athlete from Cacak and a player for Serbia II, relished everything about the event.

“For me, it’s super,” he said, “I love being with my friends, I love my friend, Nemanja [Filip’s long-time teammate and a Unified partner] and I love to play volleyball.”

Serbia embraces Special Olympics!

The tournament, which is one of the flagship events celebrating Special Olympics 50th anniversary, has been welcomed with open arms in Serbia. Not only did the City of Zrenjanin open its historic main square for an outdoor Special Olympics photo exhibition, it also draped a Special Olympics 50th banner over its main bridge on the closing day of the tournament. The national news media also got enthusiastically behind Special Olympics 50th celebrations. On 7 June, all journalists of national broadcasters wore Special Olympics 50th anniversary pins and sent good wishes for the tournament.

The partnership between Special Olympics Serbia and Udruzenje Sportskih Novinara Srbije (USNS), which is the national sports journalists association in Serbia, was also instrumental in creating awareness. In the run-up to the tournament, USNS and AIPS Europe Secretary General Predrag Milinkovic conducted media training with the staff and volunteers from Special Olympics Serbia to help them prepare for the event.

Meanwhile at the event, young volleyball fans from Mara Mandic special school in Pancevo travelled 70 km to support the Serbian team and get a taste of the action from the stands.

At the Opening Ceremony, the Minister of Youth and Sport, Vanja Udovicic, a former water polo champion and sporting icon in Serbia, welcomed athletes from across Europe Eurasia. He said, “It is very important to have as many international competitions in Serbia [for people with disabilities] as possible […] It gives opportunity to all of the friends, parents and families to experience the joy of the competition with the athletes through a phenomenal competition like this one.”

Vladimir (Vanja) Grbic, a gold-medal winning Olympian and Special Olympics Global Ambassador, in action on court at the celebrity volleyball match he organised during the European Unified Volleyball Tournament in Zrenjanin, Serbia.

Creating a domino effect

Aleksander (Sasha) Stranojevic, National Director of Special Olympics Serbia, said, “This event is very important to Special Olympics Serbia for many different reasons. First of all, it gave us the opportunity to welcome so many of our friends from Europe; it gave us the opportunity to show that we have the full support of our Government for our organisation; and gave us the opportunity to get more and new sponsors. Our aim is not only to be good and welcoming hosts but to create a kind of domino effect for our organisation’s future that shows others in our country that we are a valuable and trustworthy partner.”

Vladimir (Vanja) Grbic, a gold-medal winning Olympian and Special Olympics Global Ambassador, has been an advocate for bringing the event to Zrenjanin, his home city. He had a strong message for all participants based on his own experience with the Special Olympics movement. He said, "One thing that Special Olympics has educated me on is that it’s not about capacity, it’s about possibility, it’s not about how good you are, it’s about how you feel and how you want to invest in yourself or how really you care. So the message ‘help me win and if I don’t win, help me be brave in the attempt’ really describes it best!”
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