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Countdown to Calgary Special Olympics starts with in-school programs

The countdown to 2024’s Special Olympics Canada Winter Games has begun, and with a few months left until the games begin, students from participating schools got a chance to join in on the Olympic spirit.

Hundreds of students gathered at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on the Tsuut’ina Nation to join co-chair of the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games Calgary Organizing Committee and two-time Olympic silver medalist Cheryl Bernard, Olympic bobsledder Eden Wilson, and Special Olympics Athlete Ambassadors to learn more about the games.

Participating classrooms in the lead-up to the games will also be receiving a cheer package and an activity book that incorporates the Beyond the Win online resources from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

“This is really who the games are for,” said Bernard.

“To have these kids here and in person, I mean it’s exciting, and I think it just shows the value of these Special Olympic Games and the value of promoting inclusion in our province and in our country.”

Ensuring that people see themselves in sport, regardless of their circumstances, was at the heart of why the committee, along with sponsor RBC, were bringing the Olympic message to students, she said.

“I’ve been a Special Olympics Ambassador for years, I’ve been involved with Special Olympics Calgary, and there is the joy of sport that you see, that you sometimes don’t see in other sporting events and other Olympics,” Bernard said.

“They are able to showcase their abilities. I think it’s so important for all of us to see we’re all the same, we should all be included, we just have different abilities than others do, and so to be able to have them on the stage and show strength and determination is the most important thing.”

The games start on February 27, 2024.

Being seen in sports

Students, in addition to hearing from speakers and taking part in some light athletic activities, received a preview of the documentary film Respecting the Game: the Story of Jackie Barrett, which profiled the first Special Olympian to be inducted into Canada’s Hall of Fame.

Wilson said it pulled at the heartstrings to be able to speak to children about her journey to the Olympics.

“For me as an athlete, it’s never going to be about the medals. It’s going to be about the idea that kids can see somebody at the table who looks like them, doing great things, and therefore they believe that they can do great things as well,” Wilson said.

“I didn’t grow up watching the Olympics because there was nobody that looks like me… so the Winter Olympics wasn’t really my draw for a really long time. If I can give any kids the opportunity to see somebody who looks like them doing great things, and I’m doing the right thing.”

That representation, she said, comes in many forms. For some, that comes from having a mental disability like the athletes that compete in the Special Olympics, and for others like herself, it comes from the racial barriers she faced being both black and Metis.

“The Special Olympics is incredible, and I think we’re so lucky as a province to have it coming here. And for me, it’s really educating the kids on the importance of Special Olympics and how they can get involved even at their age,” Wilson said.

Getting Calgarians interested in sport

Cindy Ady, CEO of Tourism Calgary and former Minister for Tourism, Parks and Recreation, said that the public acceptance of the Special Olympics was different than other types of large-scale sporting competitions like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics.

“When it comes to getting volunteers for these games, people really want to step up and be part of them. When it comes to getting sponsorship for these games, corporations really see its value and they’re not something that is so divisive like those larger games,” she said.

“As a community, you get the pride as we get to show off the City of Calgary. It lends itself to the Calgary brand as a caring city that actually does care about people and does step up for these kinds of things. This particular size of games in place of games fit well within the brand of the City of Calgary.”

That sentiment was echoed by Bernard, who said in response to a question about the lack of enthusiasm for larger Commonwealth and Olympic Games, that sport itself was in a good place.

“I believe sports is in a good place, and I believe it’s come out of a darker time and it’s moved toward a really good place. The excitement for me is that we’re part of showcasing the good in sport, which is the Special Olympic Games,” she said.

“I’m glad Calgary stepped up for this. I’m glad they put their name on it. Then we’ve had so many sponsors back it because they believe in sport as well. They believe in the city. They believe in these Special Olympic athletes.”

Ady said that the Special Olympics fits well into the trend of Calgary rebounding as a tourism destination and that the games themselves are expected to generate $10 million in economic benefits for Calgary.

“I keep saying how we thought we wouldn’t be in recovery till 2025, and the city of Calgary, we’re actually a billion dollars in spend this year above where we were in 2019—we’ve had almost eight straight months of record months,” Ady said.

“I can’t emphasize enough that being able to hang out with these athletes is wonderful. It’s wonderful for Calgary.”