It was an ordinary morning of 17 years ago, when a voice from the newsroom asked one young journalist to cover a little-known sport event. “What’s that?”, Fiona Hynes questioned herself by reading the pamphlet: Special Olympics World Games, Dublin 2003.

“So incidental. But for me, that was the beginning of everything,” reveals Fiona Hynes, Director of Communications, Special Olympics International (Europe Eurasia), who was a special guest of the AIPS e-College on May 19. “I have been so excited to apply sports and reporter skills to an organization where inclusion and unity are at the top.”

From that Irish edition of the Games, the first one outside the US, the Special Olympics movement has been expanding worldwide, involving over 5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities and one million volunteers.

Their stories deserve to be told, as they represent the cornerstone of sport: dedication, sacrifice, willpower. “The success of our athletes rests on the willingness of you to take a risk on them. Tell their stories, represent their voices and dare to unify the world through your work,” points David Evangelista, President and Managing Director of Special Olympics (Europe Eurasia), in a motivational message to the AIPS Young Reporters. “The sports sector is changing at great rhythm: as journalists, your differentiation becomes a key factor: what is the story you want to tell? What is your responsibility?”

The Special Olympics headquarters are based in Washington DC, and the world is split into seven regions and 190 national programmes, an estimated 108,000 competitions annually. Probably no other event in the world has the social and emotional impact of the Special Olympics World Games, where athletes compete in 32 different sports. Held every two years, the next Summer World Games are set for June 2023 in Berlin, while the next Winter World Games will be in January 2022, its location to be announced shortly. Both of them are the flagship events of the Special Olympics movement and have grown to be an international demonstration of inclusion, acceptance, and unity.

PARALYMPICS DIFFERENCE In this sense, a key difference compared to Paralympics, as Hynes details: “Paralympics are designed for elite athletes. For us, on the contrary, the 32 Olympic-type sports we rule are a showcase for an entire community of people. Regardless from the results. Special Olympics has a strong anti-doping policy and the sports movement does not permit the use of performance enhancing drugs by its athletes. More generally, Special Olympics is strongly opposed to doping in all sports.”

TEAR DOWN BARRIERS – “People with intellectual and physical disabilities are often among the most marginalized of the world: our goal is to give them opportunities through a platform that can work as social leveler,” adds Fiona Hynes.

As Nelson Mandela – who officially opened Dublin 2003 – used to say, there is nothing more powerful than sport to tear down barriers and bring people together. “This vision is also rooted in the spirit of our far-sighted founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.”

HOW IT STARTED – The younger sister of the former US president JFK. was “a force of nature”, Fiona enthusiastically remembers. “The experiences of her sister Rosemary gave her the vision to do the impossible and launch the first Special Olympics games in 1968. A unique sport event: from that moment, being the fastest or the strongest competitor was put in second place.”

ISOLATION BEFORE CORONAVIRUS Now more than ever, the Special Olympics’ message resounds powerfully. “All the world has been experiencing social restrictions in the past few months”, the Director of Communications underlines. “But people with disabilities suffered this isolation their whole life. As we resume the normal living standards, we need to reflect on what we have and what everybody has access to. In all sports, all deserve a chance to compete. There are many personal stories dealing with huge obstacles, and organizations like ours need to flatten the road.”

To make these stories unearthed is among the main goals of Fiona Hynes. “And yours!”, is her call to the AIPS Young Reporters. “Be curious, prepared. And don’t be afraid”. In the Special Olympics field in particular, prejudices and discrimination are always around the corner. “Talk to the athletes as to anybody else: these people are not different from you and I. Misunderstanding and underestimation of our athletes have been an issue also from the media perspective.”

BIAS – Language is a further challenge: “Vocabulary can be divisive and poisoned: always apply your ethics, describe these athletes focusing on their abilities rather than on disabilities. And they, as well as their teachers and coaches, can provide a lesson for everybody: through enthusiasm and resilience even the most hostile environments can be mitigated.”

It’s a long way to the front page, but Special Olympics have already planted their flag. “I have been behind many stories attracting much media interest, specially concerning photographs. The more we work hard to achieve visibility, the more interconnected our movement can get.”

CONTENT FOR ALL – The organization is operating in 190 countries, but with different levels of professionalization so far. “Infrastructures need to improve, and we know that budget restrains are a reality for all media,” Fiona describes the specific tasks of her job. “As content producers is our duty to find space in different media platforms and put together news agenda. We work to involve specific broadcasters and media outlets by providing them in detail all the potentially interesting materials that can be turned in media products.”

On the other side, there is the audience of Special Olympics: how does the movement create a significant basis of fans? “The concept is about putting on a show and inviting people to join an experience: thanks to social media, today they can be actively part of it. Individual creativity is always welcome. To make people engaged and reach the gap, we can also count on sports ambassadors like Michael Phelps or Ricky Rubio [the most decorated Olympian of all time and one of the NBA’s Spanish stars].

“Next, considering sponsors we show them our package and the value of what we do. I think we are not discriminated against when it comes to funding: I see many opportunities in this sense, that can help us to promote the pure message we want to spread”. Fiona is an optimist by nature. “Yes! And a firm believer as well: I learn from the insiders of the Special Olympics more than ever, impatient to take the next step every day.”

Hynes catches up again with the ongoing situation. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and these are hard times for everybody: still, in the last weeks many spots of the world proved that we show the best side of us when facing the toughest challenges. The message of Special Olympics is to enhance this side of athletes.” The most human one: where competing is not about winning, but to enjoy together.

As the Special Olympics motto says, “let me win, but if I can’t, let me be brave in my attempt.”

Source: Francesco Gottardi| AIPS Young Reporter – Italy