Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Olympics and the Paralympics aren’t the only Olympic Games
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

March 25, 2024
The Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will open in less than 6 months from now. Behind these visible events, there are actually Olympics other than these two that are also authorized by the International Olympic Committee. The Special Olympics (SO), an Olympic for people with intellectual disabilities, is one of them.

Similar to the Olympics and Paralympics, it is a quadrennial event held in summer and winter. The most recent summer event was held in Berlin, Germany, last year and the next event is set to be held in 2027.

Its winter event will open in March 2025 in Torino, Italy, and the “Special Olympics Nippon National Winter Games” serving as its qualification rounds were held in Hokkaido and Nagano in February. A total of six competitions took place including alpine skiing and figure skating. (Ahead of these, two competitions had already been held last November.)

However, these competitions including the Special Olympic Games are not yet widely known. The Special Olympics deserves more recognition as we consider the current situation of the Olympic games and their future.

The Special Olympics which were originated in the United States has a relatively short history compared to the Olympics and the Paralympics. Its first summer event took place in 1968 in Chicago, and approximately 1,000 athletes from both the United States and Canada participated. Its history dates back to 1963 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of then President, John F. Kennedy hosted a day camp for children with intellectual disabilities in her backyard.

Having an elder sister with an intellectual disability herself, Eunice knew very well how important it is for children, who tend to spend most of their time locked in their houses, to have an opportunity to enjoy free activities and interactions with others outdoors, and how much joy it would bring them. Further, her brother John F. Kennedy passionately supported the initiative as U.S. President, and established the “President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.”

The devotion of the Kennedy brother and sister moved many people around the world, and the Special Olympics have been held a number of times. Today, over 3 million athletes and 500 thousand volunteers in over 201 countries participate in the Games.

Japan became a host country for the first time in 2005 in the National Winter Game held in Nagano. It was the first Special Olympic Games to be held in Asia and marked a great success with over 2500 athletes from record-high 84 countries making entries in 62 events in seven competitions.

What distinguishes the Special Olympics from the Olympics and the Paralympics is that there are no preliminaries, and the athletes are divided into groups according to their competitive abilities through a matching process called ”divisioning”. Further, every single athlete joins the final rounds, and everyone receives a commendation together with the gold, silver, and bronze medalists.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run is also characteristic of the Special Olympics. It began in 1981 in Wichita, Kansas, as a fundraising effort proposed by the city’s police chief. He called on the city’s police officers, firefighters, and law enforcement professionals to participate.

In the Special Olympics hosted in Nagano, the “5 million people torch run”, a run unique to Japan, was organized throughout the country from Hokkaido to Okinawa, and police officers and firefighters actively volunteered in 420 districts. Their action boosted the morale of the participants of the Special Olympics and served to heighten the public awareness of the game.

As is symbolized by the torch run, volunteers play a vital role in the Special Olympics, more than they do in the Olympic and Paralympic games.

Besides the run, Unified Sport (US) which allows athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and play together was developed by the Special Olympics. In the Special Olympics Japan for FY 2022, the number of U-athletes was 461 while the total number of athletes was 7,156. The number of U-games was only six, compared to the total number of games which was 115. However, as is the case with floorball, there are hopes that the number of U games will increase.

Unified Sport enables athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to play together, representing true inclusiveness in today’s world where diversity is called for. Further, it may simply be “so much fun when done together”.

Today, the Olympics are at a crossroads. They are faced with a variety of stumbling blocks such as outrageous costs, monopoly of broadcast rights, corruption/bid-rigging, supremacy of medals, and so forth. The Sapporo Winter Games seem to have stepped on at least one of them.

It is time for us to ask ourselves what the Olympics are all about. We should return to its fundamentals and ponder the famous words; “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part.” Without any doubt, the Special Olympics which appreciates the continuous day-to-day efforts of athletes and commends all participants is true to the original spirit of the “Olympics”.

CHINO Keiko is a freelance journalist and a guest editorial writer for Sankei Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2024年 3月 25日
















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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Olympics and the Paralympics aren’t the only Olympic Games