Let Me Be Brave in the Attempt

henrysooathThe Special Olympics World Games began last night in Los Angeles. An unbelievably inspirational gathering of athletes & delegates from around the globe all coming together to do their very best to do their very best.

We’re a new family to Special Olympics. Henry’s been doing things on a low level for a couple of years, but this year was the first year he did well enough for us to get a glimpse of the scope of Special Olympics. Going to the state games was an experience – some good, some bad – but gave us a feeling of how very, very important this is for the athletes.

I decided last night to forgo watching Hannibal live in order to livestream the Opening Ceremonies. I thought, “This will be amazing – to watch all these athletes from the 4 corners of the globe marching in, so excited to be there, so excited to compete, so filled with amazement! So I watched. I began live blogging what I saw -the different countries and the number of delegates they have. The faces, the wonder, the thrill! Then they would cut away to talk to some person like an executive or a neurotypical athlete or someone on the board of Special Olympics. And while that happened, I’d miss some of the countries. And I started to get annoyed.

See, here’s the thing. I’m glad there’s Special Olympics. I’m so thankful Eunice Kennedy Shriver started it and it has grown into what it is today. Because of Special Olympics, my son gets the opportunity to do things he wouldn’t, normally, and the exposure Special Olympics gets creates acceptance, inclusion, exposure of these athletes – heck, just PEOPLE with intellectual & physical disabilities – that wouldn’t otherwise happen. So do not get me wrong – I am thankful for those who began Special Olympics, those who work for, volunteer for, those who serve and promote and otherwise do everything that must be done to make these Games happen.

However. The focus I saw on Saturday night was wrong. The fact that they cut away from the athletes marching in so they could interview someone who IS NOT COMPETING is, I believe, wrong. The fact that we had to hear from yet another Goodwill ambassador instead of seeing the faces of athletes from Singapore, Slovakia, Suriname, Swaziland and others is wrong. The fact that every time a “named” athlete came in with a country’s group the ESPN cameras followed that person & put their name up on the screen was wrong. The fact that as Brazil’s athletes marched in, the camera focused on the PRESIDENT OF ESPN and scrolled his name was wrong. The fact that I had to watch Steve Garvey and Michelle Kwan and Bart Connor and Michael Phelps walk in and have attention paid to them instead of the athletes they marched with made me angry.

Then, I realized that during this 3 hour long opening ceremony, athletes had been corralled & staged outside in the Los Angeles sun and made to wait until it was their turn to march. I know that most people don’t know what it’s like to have a group of people with Down Syndrome, autism, Fragile X, and all these other issues have to WAIT. And wait. And wait. And then march in amid deafening noise, bright lights, and confusion. And then be expected to sit in their folding chairs and wait for the rest of the countries to enter the stadium.

I do know what that’s like. And I only have Henry. There is no way on God’s green earth Henry could do that. Now, I know he’s not a World Games level athlete and perhaps most of them have a higher level of ability in these areas. But I heard from someone who was there that many of the athletes could not do it the way this ceremony wanted them to. They couldn’t wait in the hot sun. They couldn’t march in and sit in their folding chairs and wait. They had to get up, move around, go for a walk. Some, I heard, even had to leave.

These athletes sat in staging areas waiting for Jimmy Kimmel, Nicole Scherzinger, and other celebrities gave their performances – performances that did not need to be given. Or that could have been given after everyone was in and they all could enjoy them. I heard that later performances were half-hearted and not nearly up to par which brought the excitement level back down.

I watched all these countries march in and then we heard from Tim Shriver – who actually gave a great speech. There was a contingent of athletes (or other participants, I’m not sure) behind him that he included and communicated with. He was encouraging, he engaged the athletes, he spoke TO them instead of about them. Then he introduced his sister, Maria. She swooped out on stage to hug her brother, completely ignoring the line of athletes behind her who were reaching out for high-fives. Some of those people were visibly disappointed that she did that.

I honestly don’t understand what was going on here. I’m assuming that ESPN was trying to create a televised ceremony that’s like the actual Olympics in terms of production values and television “tightness” of segments & stuff. But here’s the thing – you can’t do that. These people and this event is different. They do things differently. They approach the world differently. They have different needs, expectations, requirements, and abilities than the neurotypical Olympic athletes. If ESPN is going to show this event -which I think they should and I’m THRILLED that they’re trying – they need to spend more time talking to those who understand how this has to work FOR THE ATHLETES and also for those who are tuning in to see those athletes. We do not care what any executive of Special Olympics or ESPN has to say on these days. We do not care about the neurotypical athletes or their “thoughts” on these events and the competing athletes. I sure as hell don’t care about Michael Phelps’ beard or the interviewer’s opinion thereof. Those athletes do not need another nanosecond of exposure or applause for what they do. Every segment, every interview, every story, every camera shot should be of these athletes. Who STILL get ignored, unaccepted, excluded, and ridiculed all over the world. Who STILL are treated as invisible or “contagious” or “unclean” by those around them – even though many of them could outrun, outthrow, outswim, outbowl, outlift you. When you come to THEIR event and continue to choose to promote the “normal” above them, that’s beyond insulting.

I cannot sit here and claim to know exactly how to do it better. I’ve never planned anything close to this – it’s way beyond my pay grade. But I do know what I saw and it wasn’t what it should have been. ESPN, get some people in there to explain this to you. To tell you where to go, what to shoot, who to talk to, and how to present it. I think of the families/loved ones of some of these athletes from across the globe who may have been tuning in to see their person march in and then have their country be missed in order to talk to some coach or other random normal person. That would have been so disappointing, so disheartening, and too familiar. Everyone can do better. And instead of getting behind microphones talking about how this is “all about the athletes” and how they’re all so inspirational, perhaps you let them talk about it. Instead of sending that lovely Goodwill ambassador from the Netherlands out there with Nancy O’Dell – who seemed to be awfully condescending and “ain’t she cute!” to a grown-ass woman with Down Syndrome – maybe let her out there by herself or with another ambassador or with someone she knows. Meet them where they are – don’t expect them to meet you where you are.

Anyway. I was disappointed and taken aback. There was a distinct feeling of “Look at the wonderful thing we’ve done for you! Aren’t you lucky to have us??” every time someone spoke and it shouldn’t feel like that. This is THEIR event. Let THEM dictate it. Let THEM do it. Yes, help them, support them, guide them, and teach them, but don’t do it for them.  Just my two cents.