When Special Olympics was first launched in 1968, The Coca-Cola Company was a founding partner. When the Games came to Britain in 1978, Coca-Cola GB continued that strong relationship. And now we’ve been working together in this country for 40 years. Here we share how it’s changed people’s lives, and some of the joy that inclusivity and kindness can bring.             

Karen Oosthuizen beams with joy in her Special Olympics Great Britain team kit, her gold and silver medals hung around her neck. Karen and her mother, Sonette, have come to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in central London for an event to celebrate Coca-Cola Great Britain’s 40-year partnership with the Special Olympics – along with other GB athletes and volunteers.

Opening doors

Karen’s sports are 10-pin bowling in the Summer Games and skiing in the Winter Games. She’s won more than 70 medals and won’t stop there. “Karen’s been involved with the Special Olympics for around 11 years now,” says Sonette, who’s rightly very proud of her daughter. “Considering people told me she’d never amount to anything, I think it’s amazing what she’s achieved – Special Olympics has opened so many doors for her.”

Feeling included

Special Olympics for Karen, and all the other athletes who compete, is all about feeling included, having fun and making friends. And of course, sporting competitiveness! “I love competing and meeting new friends,” says Karen.

But this isn’t something that should be taken for granted. As her mum explains, this was a lot harder for her before Special Olympics came along.

Sonette says Karen found it very hard to talk to people before. She has severe autism which can make it difficult to interact with others and understand social cues. “But look at her now!” says Sonette. “You cannot underestimate the effect this has had on her life and many, many others.”

“Special Olympics is about breaking down barriers, and really shining a light on people’s abilities – as opposed to their disabilities”
Liz Lowe, Coca-Cola sustainability manager

Inclusion and joy

Two words that keep popping up during the event are ‘inclusion’ and ‘joy’. “When you’re an outsider your whole life, feeling included in something is huge,” says Laura Davies, partnership manager at Special Olympics Great Britain. And this inclusion helps to feeds the joy. Everybody including the Coca-Cola staff, Special Olympics volunteers and athletes are excited and happy. “Joy is contagious!” says Laura.

The origin of the Games

The Games were originally set up by the sister of President J F Kennedy, Eunice Shriver and her husband, Sargent. It started as a summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. In July 1968, this had grown into the first International Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago. And just 10 years later in 1978, the Games came to Britain. Coca-Cola has been supporting alongside for the whole journey.

Playing games and having fun

Now, 40 years later, we’re celebrating the ruby anniversary of the partnership. At the top of Coca-Cola’s offices on Wimpole Street in London is a large loft. As part of the celebrations, different games have been set up, including basketball, ten pin bowling, table tennis, a penalty shootout and hoopla. And later there’ll be a lunch after we’ve all worked up an appetite.

Celebrating a powerful relationship

“As Coca-Cola are a founding partner, we wouldn’t be the organisation we are today without them,” says Laura. “Their support is so important to us. Be it promotional support, financial support, or even just brand awareness.

“In GB, we're really trying to raise our profile, we want the average person to know who we are – being associated with a brand like Coca-Cola really helps us to do that. It's a really supportive relationship.”

“It’s so much more than just the sport. It’s about the competition, the playing together, the team spirit, the bonding, the pride and the ‘I can do something’ feeling”
- Sonette Oosthuizen, Special Olympics coach and mother of one of the athletes, Karen

‘It’s about ability, not disability’

Liz Lowe, Coca-Cola sustainability manager, thinks it’s a two-way street. “It’s a really important relationship for us too,” says Liz. “40 years is a long time, especially for a company to be partnering a charity, so I think it's part of our DNA now. There’s a really great fit between the brand Coca-Cola and the Special Olympics movement because it's about inclusion, it's for everyone and it's about optimism.

“It’s about helping people be the best they can be, breaking down barriers, and really shining a light on people’s abilities as opposed to their disabilities. This is a phrase we use here very often, but it’s very important.”

Light Up For Inclusion: As part of the anniversary celebrations, landmarks around the world are turning red to celebrate inclusion

Feeling valued in society

The anniversary celebrations are a testament to the work the Special Olympics does. Beaming faces and echoing laughter are everywhere at today’s party. “We use sport as a mechanism,” explains Laura. “We want to impact people with a learning or intellectual disability. Yes, they’re getting fitter and healthier, but they’re also building friendships, they’re building relationships, they’re feeling valued members of their communities.

“When they walk around with their kits on, people are drawn to them to ask them who they are what they do. Why they have these medals? Why do they have their country’s name on the back of their t-shirt? It gives them an opportunity to tell their story.

“For people who would normally feel so isolated and so separate from their community, it really embraces them and makes them feel welcome and important and valued members of society.”

A sense of belonging

“It’s opened up such a big world for Karen,” agrees Sonette. “School was everything to her,” says Sonette. “And then when she left school there was nothing. But then Special Olympics came along, and it’s given her confidence, life skills, friendship, belonging and trust.

“It’s so much more than just the sport. It’s about the competition, the playing together, the team spirit, the bonding, the pride and the ‘I can do something’ feeling. Before you feel ‘I can’t do anything’, and then suddenly, you belong.”

‘The self-esteem is unbelievable’

Sonette and her husband both qualified as coaches for other Special Olympic athletes. Sonette has been coaching another athlete called Natalie Francis, who’s off to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games. Natalie says she’s incredibly excited to go: “I can’t wait to win a medal,” she says.

Sonette can’t wait to see her compete. “The achievement and the joy when you see them competing is breathtaking,” says Sonette. “It makes everything worthwhile. Even if they get a ribbon, it’s so amazing and touching to see the confidence radiating from them. When they stand on a podium to receive a ribbon or a medal, it’s like they beam – the self-esteem is just unbelievable.”

Creating a better, more inclusive world

Although the Special Olympics is about the many athletes who compete, Laura says that it’s also for all of us. “I think Special Olympics is for everybody. It isn't just created for people with an intellectual disability, it's created for society. It’s to help us to really be more accepting of everybody. “We believe that if we were more inclusive as a society and accepting of people who are different it would be a happier world.

“Happiness that exudes from the people that we work with. And it’s contagious. We always say if we could bottle it and give it away to the world, it would be a magical.”

Find out more about Special Olympics Light Up For Inclusion campaign