SCHLADMING, AUSTRIA--The first thing I heard upon arriving at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017 was an Austrian organizer saying that the only way to fully appreciate the magic of Special Olympics was to experience it first hand.
With that in mind, I headed to Plenai Stadium despite the heavy rains pouring down on the famous ski resort near Salzburg.
Inside the stadium, I was immediately surprised by the diversity of the crowd. I expected to see family and friends of the Special Olympics athletes competing in the Games. But I certainly didn’t expect to also meet groups of youngsters who could have easily been on their way to a rave party.
The stadium was at capacity, with thousands of people cheering from the stands. The harder it rained, the louder the applause got.
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After the Austrian national anthem played, professional dancers and puppeteers performed with artists with intellectual disabilities. At the end of the show, the stadium was filled with the sounds of “Can You Feel It?”, the Coca-Cola Unified Song for the Special Olympics Winter Games by Austrian singer Rose May Alaba. The song is pure motivation, and it helped kicking off the parade of 3,000-plus athletes from more than 100 countries marching in with their arms stretched high. Some pumped their fists. Some danced and basked in the constant cheers. Many shook hands and gave out high-fives. The only giant flag waving was that of the Special Olympics, because this wasn’t about competition between countries.
There was no showing off. The Special Olympics is not about individual competition or a “winner-takes-all" mentality. This was about fostering inclusion by transforming the self-identity of athletes with intellectual disabilities and the perception of everyone watching. The concept of inclusion knew no boundaries; delegations included teams from places such as Gibraltar, Macau, San Marino and the Isle of Man. The athletes wore uniforms inspired by their national colors and accessories inspired by local traditions: Indian athletes sported multi-coloured hats, and Burkinabe athletes wore black-and-white striped coats.
“The opening parade is the highlight of the whole event for us,” said Special Olympics Global Messenger Johanna Pramstaller. “Marching in front of all those people makes you proud. We are the focus of the attention. It is our time, and it just feels great.”
For the next several days, the Special Olympic athletes will be Austria’s brightest stars as more than 1,000 medals will be given out in 10 sports.
At the end of the parade, Special Olympics International Chairman Timothy Shriver addressed the crowd. "We need these athletes to remind us all that anything is possible.” He finished by asking the crowd to recite the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
German artist Helene Fischer sang, and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen declared the Games officially open. The festive ceremony was filled with songs and praise for the courage and determination showed by the athletes. The athletes were cheered and celebrated, sending a message of respect and inclusion to the world.
By the end of the night after the cauldron was lit, my perception of what having a disability means had changed. I realized that I was paying too much attention to the 'impairments' and that this was a sort of prejudice on my part. The next time I meet someone with an intellectual disability, I will look at him or her in a different way. And I will be more open to seeing their ability rather than their disability.
Nicola Scevola is a freelance writer and producer. After spending 10 years between London and New York, he now lives in Milan, Italy, where he was born. Though he has a law degree, Scevola has never worked a single day as a lawyer. He started writing as soon as he realized it was a good excuse to meet new people and tell interesting stories.