Special Olympics Malaysia, athletes determined to show what true grit can accomplish

Funding, or the lack of it, is often the biggest issue raised by sports organisations in Malaysia.

Even the bigger and more popular sports bodies face the same problem in ensuring there is enough funds to prepare their athletes for major competitions, and to develop their respective sports.

And then there’s Special Olympics Malaysia (SOM).

How is the Special Olympics World Games different from the Paralympics?

The World Games is for those with intellectual disabilities, while the Paralympics is mainly for athletes with physical disabilities.

SOM, and its state affiliates, strive to provide year-round sports training and competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Their mission is to give this group of special athletes an opportunity to develop physical fitness, demonstrate tenacity and grit, and more importantly, experience the joy of participating in sporting activities with their families and other members of the community.

Since SOM’s inception in 1999, the athletes have been making the nation proud in their own way – donning the national colours at the Special Olympics World Games, and even the Winter Games.

So, how exactly do they do it?

Patience, perseverance, and a whole lot of love.

These are the three main ingredients that have fuelled representatives from SOM to knock on doors, deliver presentations, and, if they are lucky enough, get sponsors on board.

Admittedly, it hasn’t been easy for SOM to win the hearts of sponsors.

While the presentations are often emotional and moving, corporate types in suits and ties quickly wipe away their tears, and the conversation almost always goes back to the return on investment.

SOM had 2,461 registered athletes and unified partners in 2022. A unified partner is one without intellectual disabilities who trains and competes as a teammate alongside the Special Olympics athlete.

There was a dip in the number of participants due to the Covid-19 pandemic. SOM, however, is bullish that the number of athletes and unified partners will return to pre-pandemic levels this year. For the record, SOM had 4,623 athletes and unified partners in 2019.

It must be noted that these special athletes are supported by family members and friends. So, there is a multiplier effect, covering wider demographics.

Marketing opportunities are aplenty, but SOM’s expectations for sponsorships are rather minute, compared to able-bodied sports organisations.

Yet, SOM is able to provide its sponsors with a measurable and quantifiable social impact.

Right now, SOM is on a mission to raise funds ahead of the World Games in Berlin, Germany, scheduled from June 17-25.

The association, thus far, has impressively secured some RM110,000, and needs another RM90,000 to fund the national contingent, comprising 22 athletes (16 with intellectual disabilities and six unified partners), 12 coaches, four officials, and one team doctor.

The Malaysian athletes will compete in swimming, badminton, table tennis, bowling, athletics, and bocce – a game similar to lawn bowls – in Berlin.

The competition is real, as athletes take part in state-level competitions, with the winners competing at the national level. The best of the best will then go on to represent the country in the World Games.

SOM’s activities do not stop once the World Games are over. In fact, five states – Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor, Melaka, and Perak – are said to be active in training these special athletes on a regular basis.

What’s interesting are the other programmes to get their family members, and the community, on board.

Children with intellectual disabilities, between the ages of two and seven, are exposed to the Young Athletes Programme, where they sweat it out with other kids without intellectual disabilities.

This encourages the children to mix around so that they and their parents do not feel left out.

The athletes are then trained from the age of eight onwards.

The training schedule depends on the initiatives carried out by the states, but generally, training for some sports like table tennis is carried out weekly, while others train at least twice a month.

The journey has not been a walk in the park for SOM’s representatives. It hasn’t been easy securing venues, equipment, and even the services of coaches.

One also wonders if the national sports associations – the guardians of the respective sports – are helping to further promote their sport, especially among the intellectually disabled. While the rules in Special Olympics may differ, it’s still part of the sport.

For some, it can also be described as a rather frustrating journey, but seeing the smiles of intellectually disabled athletes and their families, keeps those at SOM going.

SOM has also been blessed with supportive parents, and hopefully, more will get their children involved in their activities.

Those who have attended the training sessions speak of the joy and the genuine love by the intellectually disabled athletes.

It’s a different kind of human connection, one that cannot be expressed through words. It’s a special bond that only those who have experienced it will understand.

Those who want to know more about SOM can visit its website or email them at secretariat@specialolympicsmalaysia.org.

Tagged with: