ABU DHABI: In the United Arab Emirates, those with special needs are known as people of “determination”.
And at the Special Olympics World Games, it’s clear this description could not be more apt.
Numbering over 7,500, the sportsmen and women at the global meet have been nothing but determined.
Determined to win. Determined to succeed. But most importantly, determined to try.
The Special Olympics, held from Mar 14 to Mar 21, is a competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and this year marks Singapore’s 10th year of participation.
Four gold, four silvers and eight bronzes is what the Republic’s medal tally reads at the end of the Special Olympics, but head of delegation Lee Theng Ngee is not focused on merely keeping score.
“Everybody is a champion to me,” said Lee. “The public should celebrate their involvement and participation in this Special Olympics, and not just look at gold or silver medals.”
Team Singapore’s contingent of 30 athletes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have lived and breathed by the Special Olympics athlete’s oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
From the basketball team who battled ‘giants’, to the athletics team who stared down injury and sickness, from the bocce player who fought back tears to the swimmer who powered past disappointment – these are people of determination.
Now, it is about translating their performances on the field of play to the game of life.
For some of these athletes – their biggest obstacle could be themselves, said badminton coach Kevan Lee.
“From our mixed doubles experience (athletes Keryn Ching and Vikesh Magenthran clinched a bronze), one skill they really picked up was how they can overcome themselves,” said Kevan.
“We came to a point where its no longer how weak or how strong the opponent is but how much of themselves they can overcome.”
He added: “For whatever challenges they face, they must know that it may not be the situation per se that they have to overcome; they have to overcome certain fear and anxiety within themselves and once they can do that, they can overcome more.”
Facing the challenges of daily life is sometimes not the most straightforward.Those with intellectual disabilities sometimes face snide comments and cruel staring in public, said coaches.
Athletics coach Tamil Selvi, a teacher at a special needs school, recalls an instance where a student of hers heard commuters on the public bus speaking behind his back about his school uniform and the school he came from.
“He heard it and he didn’t want to take the bus to school,” she recalled. “He would wait for his father or mother to send him to school and fetch him back.
“I told him that if you feel that people are stigmatising you, you can change your t-shirt and wear the same pants when you board the bus – after that he was able to do independent travel.”
But while such incidents do occur, Singapore has come a long way in terms of being an inclusive society, said Bocce coach Norhaiza Binte Yep Abu.
“The awareness that the public have of those who have special needs has grown, improved very much, but they can do more,” she said.
One way the public can get involved is to participate in inclusive activities alongside those with intellectual disabilities, added Norhaiza.
“If we start kids to start young and play together, sports can be the equaliser,” agreed Lee.
But what will be key is for the public to move beyond merely sympathising for those with intellectual disabilities, and rather to celebrate what they can do, said Lee, who has been a volunteer with Special Olympics Singapore for 18 years.
“Society tends to sympathise with persons with intellectual disabilities, they will think that we need to do things for them,” he said.
“But what we’ve been trying to do over the years is to change the perception. Let’s celebrate their abilities, showcase their abilities, rather than say: ‘Oh they can’t do this, can’t do that’.
“When we showcase what they can do, that will certainly change the way people think.”
Team Singapore’s coaches are keen to stress that their athletes are in many ways no different from others in society.
“They have their own strengths and weaknesses. We also have strengths and weaknesses,” said Selvi.
Kevan added: “We tend to look at one’s limitations more than one’s greatness.
“They may be different in certain aspects, but we may be similar in many things … Regardless of their intellectual disability, they can be just as determined, their desire can be just as strong.”
These sentiments are best summed up by Brazilian defender Cafu, one of the many superstars who made an appearance at the Special Olympics.
In a post on Twitter, the most capped Brazilian player of all time and two-time World Cup winner said: “People call us legends. For me LEGENDS are these kids.”