Acceptance and inclusion the ultimate Special Olympics victory

IT’S almost impossible to describe Shanghai. A city of 20 million people that seems to go on for ever.

Thousands of skyscrapers, many of them built to fantastic designs and brilliantly lit at night. A wide river where the endless traffic runs in three lanes in each direction. A constant buzz of activity in factories, shops, offices and on the streets. Markets where the range of incredible goods and designer labels is matched by the never-ending hum of loud haggling and bargaining — bargaining that usually results in designer handbags or watches changing hands for €30 or less. They’re fake, of course, but they’re about the only thing about this city that is.

And everywhere you go here, it’s gone a bit green. For the Special Olympics World Games, Ireland has sent its largest-ever delegation abroad. As a proportion of our population, we have the largest delegation at the Games by far. The vast majority of them have paid their own way to be here — many of them raising money for Special Olympics in the process. Nearly 1,000 of us are here, primarily to support our athletes but also to help out in the overall organising of the Games. And to have a whale of a time in the process.

A lot of the families and volunteers came out to Shanghai, I suspect, with no little trepidation. The language and culture barriers are huge — if you get lost here, you get really lost, and there’s no point in trying to find helpful street signs. The people are very helpful, but only a tiny smattering of this enormous population speak English. But if there’s an Irish team that needs support, anywhere in the world, you’ll find Irish supporters willing to do whatever it takes to rally around them.

So the Irish delegation has turned the Equatorial Hotel into a little bit of Ireland. There’s an Irish cottage in the lobby that serves as a centre for information and direction, rostering volunteers, guiding parents and organising transport to each of the sporting venues. From this hub, every day, the Irish set out to gather the stories of the games.

And what stories. Oliver Doherty is the incoming captain of his local golf club in Donegal and the proud representative of the North West Special Olympics Club. As an outstanding golfer, he was expected to put in a great performance on the championship course being used here. Despite the incredible humidity of the past few days — humidity well in excess of anything an Irish golfer would be used to — he has played out of his skin, and is in prime position for a good medal. But the entire Irish golf team has astonished its mentors. Each of them, male and female, has battled their way into the premier divisions of the golf, and they are all playing the golf of their lives.

In the aquatics, we’ve had personal best after personal best. Perhaps the story of the swimming so far has been Ryan Archibold, from Ballymoney in Co Antrim. The nature of his disability means that he relies exclusively on upper body strength to compete with great swimmers from around the world. On Saturday he was on his last chance for a medal, having come fourth and fifth in two previous events.

I watched the tension build on the faces of his parents as they watched him on the starting blocks, and then we all roared ourselves hoarse as he powered his way to an astonishing bronze in the 100-metre freestyle event, well within his previous best time. Later, he posed for pictures with Ruth Swann from Craigavon and Paddy Monaghan from Dublin, both of whom won silver medals. The smiles in those pictures would provide enough power for any of Shanghai’s skyscrapers.

It’s the same story everywhere. It’s difficult sometimes to keep track, because local politics decreed that the venues for these games would be spread across Shanghai’s 19 districts (each of them almost big enough to be an Irish county), but the football team is going like a train, the equestrian team is notching up medal after medal, Ireland’s bowlers and bocce players are all flying, the basketball teams are doing brilliantly, and we have won gold in badminton. In sports that Irish athletes mightn’t normally be expected to shine, this team has already exceeded all sorts of expectations.

An awful lot of medals will be decided over the next couple of days, but one athlete in particular might end up coming home as the medal star of the games. Una McGarry from Belfast has already won two golds and two bronze medals in a variety of demanding and intricate disciplines of gymnastics. Her attitude to her medal haul, though, is typical of all the other athletes. She’s here for the team, and she won’t be going home happy unless everyone does well. But the performances across the board have already been so good that this team will be going home very happy indeed. And they will be going home having represented their country, in a faraway and strange land, with huge distinction.

Special Olympics, of course, is about more than medals. One of the other challenges the movement takes on is to try to change hearts and minds where the whole issue of disability is concerned. Many people feel that this is a particularly difficult challenge where China is concerned.

The history of China and disability has not been a proud one — several Chinese people have told me here that, before the Games began, they had never, for example, seen or met a person with Down’s syndrome, because disability usually means institutionalisation.

BUT you can see the signs of change everywhere. The sight of Chinese President Hu Jintao, who presided over the opening ceremony and was shown in a video working with people with disabilities, has astonished the Chinese people. He, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have made a number of speeches, and allowed articles to be published, which demonstrate a new commitment to integration of people with a disability into mainstream Chinese society.

Posters of people with disabilities have sprung up all over the city and, in all of them, the message is the same. The slogan for the Games — “I know I can” — has become a byword for a new understanding about disability here.

It’s a step forward — and it may be too soon to tell how much of a step it is. A society of more than a billion people, with a history and culture that was flourishing long before Newgrange was built, takes time to change. And change often only comes in tiny increments.

China defies our understanding in many ways but, right now, it seems, this is a country determined to take its place in the world. In economic and strategic terms, that will be a powerful place; economic growth is rapidly positioning the country as a world leader.

If these Special Olympics World Games play their part in helping to finally include people with disabilities in China’s future, that will be the ultimate victory.

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