The Special Olympics Bharat National Games, which concludes today in Delhi, reinforces the healing power in sports.

Chitra Ramaswamy

The venues were a beehive of activity and the atmosphere electrifying. The air was filled with beats of celebration celebration of the spirit of participation, of joy, and the knowledge that they were contributing to the nation's pride. There was every sign that Special Olympics Bharat had yet again kicked off with gusto at the national level, as the special athletes from various corners of India gathered to prove their mettle, to show in no uncertain terms that they are second to none and revel in camaraderie.

Many of the athletes bowled over the onlookers with their simple show of friendliness a light hug here, or a shaking of hands there, drawing even the most reticent among the audience out of their cocoon!

The spectators cheered the participants energetically and mingled easily with them. The events, which draw to a close today, were flagged off on July 27 at Kolkata. The `Flame of Hope' was lit by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on April 11 in New Delhi and and this was followed by a torch run covering nearly 12,000 km across 29 cities, involving 12,000 athletes, 24,000 students, volunteers, families and over 70 celebrities.

The lighting of the Flame of Hope also marked the launch of the `Inspire Hope India' campaign that aims to reach out to over 30 million intellectually challenged special people through training and competition in sports. According to Charles Borromeo, Arjuna and Padmashri awardee who is currently National Sports Director of Special Olympics Bharat (SOB), two lakh new athletes would be enrolled by the end of 2005, and 20,000 volunteers enlisted for the movement.

SOB is the national accredited programme of Special Olympics International (SOI) that has designated India a priority nation. SOB operates in 24 Indian states and has registered over one lakh special athletes. It conducts 50 competitions covering 14 Olympic sports, annually.

The programme aims to provide year-round sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disability to develop fitness levels and create an atmosphere of sharing with families, other special Olympic athletes and the community in general.

According to Aditya Paul, Programme Officer, SOB, 75 per cent of the special people who are labelled MR (mentally retarded) are only mildly so and can vastly benefit through sports training. "It is our aim to identify as early as possible children who have been branded so and give them the appropriate training so that they may be well integrated into mainstream society and attend normal schools with other children. And we aim to do this through sporting activities which also gives them a platform to show what they can do."

SOB attempts to create awareness at local levels through community and village panchayats, identifying both special athletes and volunteers for the programme. Similarly, coaches are specially trained on par with international standards. The special athletes did India proud at Dublin in 2003 when they returned with a rich haul of 110 medals, 34 of them gold. The Indian special athletes' team also took part in floor hockey early this year at the Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Nagano, Japan.

Taking advantage of the country's cricket craze, SOB introduced the game into its programme with the first Asia Pacific Cricket Tournament held in 2004 in Ahmedabad. The tournament featured the Special Olympics Pakistan team and 20 domestic teams. This was also the first time that a Special Olympics village was built here with all amenities by the host Gujarat Special Olympics.

Interestingly, 30 athletes from Rajnagar village of Jharkhand, a tiny hamlet with no electricity or communication channel, received training and competed at local, state and national levels; seven were subsequently certified near-normal by doctors and psychiatrists.

Borromeo says that the parents were initially hostile and suspicious at these efforts as there was a language barrier. "But we were equally determined to enrol their children, many of whom were mentally retarded more from malnutrition and parental neglect arising from abject poverty."

SOB also organises common sports competitions for special and ordinary children to foster a spirit of kinship among them.

Aditya Paul mentions Siraj Begum in Hyderabad who until six years ago was labelled `mad' and who won two gold medals in roller-skating at the 2003 Dublin games. "Siraj is now a very confident young lady who trains other children in the sport!" he says.

Preparations are now on for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China. The National Selection Committee will soon short-list about 500 athletes of which 200 will participate at the Games.

"After the 2007 Games, the emphasis will be more on local programmes and state-level programmes," says Borromeo.

Pictures by the author

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 2, 2005)
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