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Special Olympics World Games 2023

An experience to remember



I took a quick scan of the people around me as I boarded my flight to Berlin. I had a small carry-on suitcase that needed to be stored away; there was no way I was single-handedly swinging that thing over my head into the overhead locker in swift moves like a jungle cat. The crowd around me looked neutral, as they should; I ended up requesting the person behind me in queue to help in storing my suitcase away. His initial iciness melted away as he noticed I could use the help, even promised to take it out after landing; I thanked him profusely and it all worked out.


7 out of 10 times, I manage to get help, no questions asked; with just a couple of odd instances every now and then when my judgement goes wrong, and I’d get a flat-out no. Leaving me to pout and ponder on how I can be more discreetly blatant about wanting some help. Idea! Accessibility needs should be asked at the time of booking. If one can get a special Hindu or Jain meal 30,000 feet above sea level, surely pre-registering other needs shouldn’t be complicated?! And let’s face it, seeking out flight crew members, especially on budget airlines, for such kind of requests could be risky. No one wants to be the cause of commotion and trending viral next day on the internet. Err I would rather do my jungle cat moves.


This brings me to the point of this article. In my experience, almost all of the time, every person wants to be helpful and mindful towards someone with a disability. It’s just not known how to help or act, or worse, it’s just not known. A reality for any of us really; a more common experience for people with invisible disabilities – hearing, attention disorders, blurred vision, dyslexia, etc.


So, when I was invited to attend The Special Olympics World Games (SOWG) in Berlin I was ALL IN. Why, what’s the connection?


SOWG are the biggest ever games hosting athletes with intellectual disabilities (and hence mostly invisible) from around the globe to compete in 30+ types of sports. Besides it being so much fun, the aim of SOWG is at least 2-fold:

  • shed light on the sheer number of people impacted. 6000+ professional athletes participated from nearly 130 countries;

  • using the power of sports and competition to unite and normalize disabilities

If this isn’t credible enough yet, SOWG are 100% legit and supported by the official Olympics. It was perfect! Finally, a large-scale event and platform to create global awareness and the much inevitable change in mindset towards people with disabilities.


I won’t be able to do justice to all stats and figures from the SOWG, so will share my top highlights to give you a glimpse of the impact:


The energy

My word(s) for it: larger than life. Besides the very occasional football and cricket matches, I’ve never really experienced a sporting event of this magnitude. And it was just E.P.I.C. It was nothing short of a festival: groups of people cheering for their teams, food stalls, DJ sets, decorations, performances, the works. You know its huge if you’re given a map indicating how to get to from one place to another.


I was invited as an honoured guest. No, it’s not because I am a fellow disabled individual – we aren’t a club, it’d be cool though – it is because I lead an ERG at my workplace. As an honoured guest, I was allowed to watch all games, attend seminars, network with charities and organizations. Yes, how fancy. The real deal is to be a volunteer though.


The SOWG welcomed 15000+ volunteers to bring the event to life. It was easy to spot a volunteer, they all had purple tshirts on and were all over the scene like a purple haze. Volunteering was also made really easy. Anyone could sign up as a one, all it took was passion and a few mandatory online trainings on tasks and actions. Volunteers are assigned by day to a sport and/or a national team and the duties can range from getting water for athletes to keeping time, or even directing crowds. They’re in the middle of it all, high on adrenaline, running the show. A bond develops between them all – volunteers, teams, coaches, athletes – and together they have just one goal – to win!


It looked intense but amazing enough for me to be getting some serious FOMO. I’m totally hooked and signing up for the Paralympics in 2024 as a volunteer.


The levelling and ranking

I found this to be the most interesting part of the competition. The first two days were dedicated to categorizing players based on the degree of their disability.

Team Egypt athlete, slaying it 🔥

Imagine Team India and Team Canada up against each other for a quick round of 5x5 basketball shootouts for 15 minutes on the clock. If Team India wins, is it because they’re better at the game or is it because some players have a lower degree of disability putting them and their team at an advantage? In other words, are we competing apples with oranges?


Fascinating. To create equality, we literally first have to create differentiation based on the level of disability and thereafter group athletes of similar levels. I guess it makes sense in a twisted, paradoxical way. Growth does come with some amount of discomfort, much like a lobster.


Anyway, whatever the level, it didn’t deter the professional athletes. They were like tigers (last of my animal metaphors); eye on the prize, focused and poised, ready to play for victory.


The city

I am so impressed with Berlin. Sure, there were chaotic moments but in general it was really amazing to see how the city showed up for this week.


Public spaces were filled with confronting yet thought provoking messages about inclusive behaviour, I really believe such messages remove unconscious biases in the longer run. Media coverage for the full event was solid to ensure the reach was truly wide. And giving the devil its due, famous political figures painted a pretty visionary picture of a future society that is truly inclusive, and how initiatives such as the SOWG is a step towards that change.

Closing Ceremony of SOWG at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Closing Ceremony of SOWG at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

The city center was buzzing through the week with Berlin-standard party stalls to create more awareness and excitement around the event - super fun, super effective.


The end of the competition took place at the historic Brandenburg Gate which was beautifully dressed for the closing ceremony. Flashes of purple everywhere, the location was fantastic, and the vibe was charged.


And lastly, because I’m superficial and easily won over with freebies – the free public transport for volunteers, athletes, attendees, and promos from Starbucks and Bolt (taxi) really did it for me.


All in all, such a memorable experience! My learning: on courts and pitches, the only limitation is one’s own mind and imagination; the competitive spirit can actually overpower the feeling of having a lack and instead leads to unapologetically 'owning it'. It projects confidence, and no one pities that. Imagine if we could model this behaviour all the time, every day. Witnessing the power of sports in uniting us all will change your perspective forever, guaranteed.


Events like these are often hiding in plain sight, once you know you'll notice them everywhere. With all my heart I encourage everyone to experience and learn about it. Are you in? Well, the GB are. SOWG occurs every four years, and rumour has it that the GB is making a bid to host the next one in 2027. Not surprising, these Brits will do anything for a good party.


Here’s the official website, much better visuals than my basic iPhone media!




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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent. Very heart warming to know that such GREAT initiatives are being taken collectively by countries, its people & their governments, all in the name of INCLUSIVITY. Yes, we ALL need to embrace humanity unconditionally. Given an opportunity, I'd love to be part of such an awesome event, and more:-) it really sounds so exciting.

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Silvia D'Anna
Silvia D'Anna
Jul 17, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What an inspiring piece, gave me goosebumps all the way through reading! thank you for what you are doing and for helping me get a new perspective every single time 🤍

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Guest
Jul 16, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

thanks for sharing

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