Unified Sports Gains Momentum at '95 World Games

Article excerpt

The 1995 Special Olympics World Games will leave a legacy that stretches far beyond the usual remnants left behind at most athletic competitions.

That legacy will be comprised of the record number of individuals with mental retardation competing, the millions of spectators who witness the event on television and in person, and the number of sports and competitions being featured. Perhaps most significantly, these games will showcase the abundance of sports and recreation opportunities now available for individuals with mental retardation.

One of the most notable of these new opportunities is Special Olympics Unified Sports, a program that combines, on the same teams, athletes with and without mental retardation.

Why Unified Sports?

The aim of Special Olympics Unified Sports is to provide Special Olympics athletes the opportunity for meaningful training and competition with teammates who do not have disabilities. The careful selection of teammates who are similar in age and ability ensures that Unified Sports participants play important and valued roles on the team. The program provides a forum for positive social interaction among teammates that often leads to longlasting friendships.

"What `Games of Inclusion, really means is that more Special Olympics athletes than ever before are being accepted as individuals in every aspect of our program," said Dr. Tom Songster, director of sports and recreation at Special Olympics International (SOI). "The exciting part is watching them take their Unified Sports experiences into other areas of their lives, such as school, work and their communities. Sports is simply the vehicle."

Growth

First introduced at the 1991 International Special Olympics Summer Games in Minneapolis, Special Olympics Unified Sports began with just three sports and 100 athletes. Only four years later, 11 sports--including, for the first time, golf, sailing, basketball, tennis and the marathon--will feature Unified competition. More than 1,000 Unified athletes and partners will compete together, and the numbers continue to grow.

Unified Sports has been especially successful in schools, where teachers and administrators have struggled for years to find a way to bridge the gap between students without disabilities and their special education peers. George Smith, director of sports training and education at SOI, says Unified Sports is one answer, noting that the program "provides an opportunity for people to have a common ground, and what better common ground than sports?" According to Smith, virtually any sport can be successfully incorporated into a Unified program, including those traditionally thought of as "individual" sports.

In his 10 years at SOI, Smith, whose responsibilities include the worldwide implementation of Unified Sports, has seen the program expand into nearly 30 countries. "You can take any .sport and it can be logically, thoughtfully and successfully unified," says Smith. "It's remarkable to see the Unified concept catch on so quickly overseas, since the whole idea of inclusion is a relatively new one in some regions outside the United States."

Goals

The goals of Special Olympics Unified Sports are:

* Skill development: Under the direction of qualified coaches, participants develop sports skills as well as prepare themselves for participation in other community sports programs.

* Competition experiences: Athletes benefit from physical and mental challenges through participation in a variety of competitions organized by Special Olympics or by community sports organizations.

* Meaningful inclusion: Unified Sports rules and guidelines on age and ability grouping help ensure that all athletes play an important, meaningful and valued role on the team.

* Community-based participation: Unified Sports programs have found valuable partners in community parks and recreation departments, schools, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and many other community sports organizations. …