When the 2015 Special Olympics World Games roll into Los Angeles later this week, it will be very personal for me.
I was blessed with an older brother, Billy. Billy had Down syndrome. He was 10 years older than me, and many of my memories as his little brother were watching him compete in Special Olympics events in Northern Minnesota towns such as Duluth and Cloquet.
This was in the 1970s. I was little then and don’t remember a whole lot, other than Billy liked to run and he took home lots of medals. I was jealous of all those medals.
In fact, I was jealous of my older brother for many reasons. When Billy was home, my buddies would come over to our house and race right past me to give him a hug or high-five. And he was a ladies man. He could dance, he could be romantic, and he could flirt with the best of them.
You see, Billy Deutsch never wasted a hug. Not one.
Suffice it to say, Billy had a huge impact on me and our entire family. In fact, both of my older sisters became special education teachers, in large measure due to our brother.
So I didn’t think it was a coincidence when, in my first job as a young PR professional, Coca-Cola asked the agency I worked for to help activate its sponsorship of the 1991 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Minneapolis.
A few years later, Coca-Cola offered me a dream job in Atlanta, and one of my first projects was to support the company’s partnership with Special Olympics.
I always say that once you experience Special Olympics, it’s impossible not to care about the movement and its amazing athletes. Soon after moving to Atlanta, I joined the Board of Special Olympics Georgia, eventually becoming chairman. I currently sit on its Honorary Board.
I’m proud to work at a company that is such a strong supporter of Special Olympics. Coke has been there since Special Olympics was founded in 1968. Our Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent is a very active member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics International. We’ve provided marketing support and our products to thousands of Special Olympics events in countries all over the world. And, perhaps most importantly, many of our employees volunteer their time and talents to support the movement at the local, national and international level. Many of them will be in Los Angeles.
This year, with the help of O.A.R.s’ Marc Roberge and singer Cody Simpson, Coca-Cola created a unified song in honor of the athletes, titled “Reach Up.” The coolest part is that the song features vocals from Breanna Bogucki, a singer and decorated Special Olympics athlete from Illinois who has Autism, and Madison Tevlin, a young Canadian woman with Down syndrome who became a viral sensation earlier this year. They’ll sing “Reach Up” Saturday night during Opening Ceremonies at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but you can watch it here.
One of my most emotional moments related to Special Olympics occurred this summer in the run-up to the Games. My sisters and I (and our families) ran with the torch during the Special Olympics Unified Relay in our respective cities. My sister, Mimi, ran in Boston; Elayne ran in Minneapolis; and I proudly carried the torch here in Atlanta. We each wore Special Olympics medals Billy had won years ago, and it felt like he was running alongside us. I could hear him say, “C’mon My Brother Ben, can’t you run faster?”
Billy passed away 16 years ago due to complications involving dementia. He was 47. But his stubbornness, smile, abundant hugs, love of Christmas music (in our Jewish household), infatuation with TV antennas (he’d snap them off our TVs and use them as conductor sticks; that always went over well with my dad) and infectious personality will never, ever be forgotten.
So when I arrive at the Games later this week, and watch the procession of athletes at Opening Ceremonies, I will look down on the field and I will see my big brother Billy. And I will give the person next to me a big hug.
Ben Deutsch is vice president of corporate communications at The Coca-Cola Company.