Words matter: Mentally retarded or human gift? Looking back at the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai

Growing up in 1970s and early 1980s Ireland I remember the labels “mentally retarded”, “mongolian”, “mongol” and “mongoloid” being used in casual conversations when referring to people with intellectual disabilities, or Down Syndrome. I plead guilty to pronouncing such stereotypes. By condoning or even saying such humiliating remarks, unknowingly I was in effect robbing people with intellectual disabilities of their individuality and dignity.

Such degrading descriptions of people with intellectual disabilities have been cultivated over many years:

  • P.M. Duncan noted in 1866 a girl “with a small round head, Chinese looking eyes, projecting a large tongue who only knew a few words” in ‘A manual for the classification, training and education of the feeble-minded, imbecile and idiotic. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • John Langdon H. Down (1828-1896), an Edinburgh physician, published in 1866 the first clinical description of individuals with Down Syndrome that bears his name in the landmark paper, ‘Observations on ethnic classifications of idiots’.
  • Benjamin Spock suggests in ‘Baby and Child Care (1946)’ that babies born mongoloid should immediately be institutionalized based on the premise that “If (the infant) merely exists at a level that is hardly human, it is much better for the other children and the parents to have him cared for elsewhere“.
  • The theologian Joseph Fletcher attempting to comfort a bereaved parent, concludes in 1968 that there is “no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person.

Words matter!

Imbecile, idiotic, hardly human, retarded, not a person..?  No way!

Why the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games contestant will never match the spirit, resolve and strength of mind of the Shanghai 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games athlete?

Held in Shanghai from October 2nd to October 11th, my colleague and I attended the Games as volunteers hoping to be of some assistance to the 151 member Irish team, their euphoric family members and the 200 volunteers who had fund-raised over €1,000,000 for Special Olympics Ireland.

Looking back on that week I can honestly express it as one of the most heartening, and touching experiences of my life.

Vivid memories:

  • … The ‘Team Ireland’ hotel, the Equatorial. If I hadn’t of known about the Special Olympics I would be forgiven for thinking I had by chance walked into the Shanghai leg of the world’s most famous rock group on tour. The atmosphere in the lobby was electric, noisy and very cheery. And who was making all the clatter? The families of the Irish athletes. Hundreds of family members and volunteers had flown in from all over Ireland, Australia, New Zealand to support their Ruth Gribbon and Pauline Rush in Bocce, James in the Basketball, and Sarah in the Athletics.
  •   … The spectacular Opening Ceremony wasn’t just about huge fireworks displays, and appearances by celebrities Jackie Chan, Colm Farrell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Shanghai, with the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games less than twelve months away, sought to display its organisational prowess. The true symbolism of the night was the picture beamed to almost every household in China of President Hu Jintao hugging and playing with Down Syndrome children. 
  • … The scenes of jubilation after Ireland’s basketball team at 4 points versus India’s 18 slam dunked to go to 7…. It was as if they’d just scored the winning point in the world cup final. Spine chilling and poignant indeed…. Such jubilation… Yep, that’s what sport is all about. They were having fun no matter what the score was.
  • … The barefooted 1,500 metres athlete #9, running in the yellow colours of Tanzania, who literally danced around the outside lane of Shanghai’s Olympic Stadium and then stopped to wait for his fellow competitors to catch up with him. When he finally crossed the line in first he just kept running, enjoying himself immensely as stewards and minders tried to catch up with him…
  •  …“I know I can”. First or last it didn’t matter, all the athletes finished walking or running around this 400 metres Olympics track. Their single-minded focusr on crossing the finish line, and competitive it was. Team Ireland’s Sarah, #4 in the women’s 1,500 metre walk, briskly walked around the track as if she was going for a breath of air with her dog such was her look of she enjoyment. Not one of the athletes dropped out.  It was a sight to behold, never to be forgotten.
  • … Making friends: A Danish athlete swapping badge pins with her Irish athlete counterpart, spur-of-the-moment stuff. This was their stage and they were thoroughly enjoying it.
  • … The devotion and enthusiasm of each Chinese volunteer assigned to an athlete as a minder. The clearly genuine amity between the two for me really captured the power of the Special Olympics spirit. Despite the enormous challenge of convincing China’s populace at large that the intellectually disabled are able to lead a happy life and contribute to society these volunteers in my mind have really shown the way.

And so much more…..

For anyone who has never been to one of these momentous events, it is worth the time and effort to appreciate the extent of human potential and to recognise that each unique human gift has a place in society.

Words matter!

Witnessing the social and cultural transformation of the underserved and often marginalised intellectually disabled as I did at the Games in Shanghai certainly made me feel ashamed, very ashamed.

Imbecile, idiotic, hardly human, retarded, not a person..?  No way!

Appreciating the value and importance of including people with intellectual disabilities into all aspects of life, I look forward to the next Special Olympics World Summer Games, which will be held in Athens in 2011.

[Note: The previous 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003 was mired in controversy even before the Opening Ceremony following the Irish Government’s banning of the Team Hong Kong’s participation due to worries about SARS. An outraged Niall O’Reilly decides to write two letters highlighting the Irish Government irrational and hypocritical decision…. To read more click: https://nialljoreilly.com/2007/09/21/special-olympics-world-summer-games-shanghai-october-2-11-2007/ ]

Special Olympics World Summer Games Euphoria – From Dublin 2003 to Shanghai 2007

Wow! It’s already over four years since the last Special Olympics World Summer Games were hosted Dublin. It was the largest sports event ever hosted in Ireland.

From 2nd to 11th October the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games will be hosted by Shanghai [http://www.2007specialolympics.com], the first of the three Olympic Games to be staged in China over the next 14 months, including the Summer Olympics and the Paralympic Games to be held next Summer in Beijing.

Unlike now, the days before the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2003 in Dublin were mired in controversy. At the time both Hong Kong and China were affected by the outbreak of the illness known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Irish Government fearful of SARS spreading to Ireland decided to ban the Hong Kong Special Olympics team from traveling to Ireland to compete at the Games. There was outrage in Hong Kong with protests outside the office of the Honorary Consul of Ireland. For me what was particular odious about this decision was the fact that business men and women were still allowed to freely travel to Ireland.

In Ireland on the radio, television and in the newspapers there was intense debate about the Irish Government’s decision. Living and working in Hong Kong there was a palpable sense of outage amongst the Irish community. Something had to be done. I decided to write two letters. The first which was published on 6th June, was to the Irish Examiner newspaper, while the second letter was to Chairman of the Organising Committee, Mr. Denis O’Brien (who was also an investor in the company I was working for at the time).

Irish Examiner Newpaper

Friday 6th June, 2003

 “Hong Kong’s special athletes hit by a peculiar Irish infection”

I WRITE in response to the latest “final” June 4 decision of the Department of Health and Children’s expert group on SARS and the Special Olympics to maintain its ban on Hong Kong’s disabled athletes travelling to Ireland, thus depriving them of the chance to attend what likely would be the most thrilling event in their lives.

This illogical decision comes after a period of unprecedented high-level dialogue between senior Hong Kong government officials and Irish medical experts in which the Hong Kong side sought to articulate a clearer understanding of the situation and the extra efforts that it would make to guarantee the health of its athletes before departure.

It is almost two weeks since the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the lifting of its travel advisory against Hong Kong, noting that SARS outbreaks had been contained, which is not much different to its observations regarding the status of Canada and mainland China.

In fact, all new SARS cases confirmed in Hong Kong over the past month (an average of fewer than five cases per day compared to upwards of 60 daily at the end of March) have occurred in people who were already identified as contacts of a person with SARS and under active surveillance by the local health authorities.

None of the Hong Kong Special Olympics athletes hoping to travel to Ireland has had contact with any SARS patients, or any suspected cases.

The WHO has highly commended Hong Kong’s transparency and aggressive Hong Kong Special Olympics procedures.

All close contacts of known SARS cases are quarantined at home.

In addition, their Hong Kong ID numbers are passed to the immigration department to ensure that they cannot leave the territory.

Since the implementation of these rigorous exit-screening procedures at border checkpoints, which also include mandatory temperature checking of all outbound travellers, there have been no reports of internationally exported cases of SARS from Hong Kong.

What is more, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended against cancelling or postponing gatherings that will include people travelling to the US from areas with SARS, and the quarantine of persons arriving from SARS-affected areas who have shown no fever or respiratory symptoms.

As such, over the past fortnight Hong Kong exhibitors have been welcomed to the Las Vegas Jewellery Fair and the Cannes Film Festival as a result of the precautionary measures that the exhibitors had undertaken voluntarily.

And yet, it is against such transparency that Ireland still maintains its travel ban depriving athletes, some of whom have trained for up to eight years and whose team won 53 gold medals at the last Special Olympics, their chance to be the pride of Hong Kong.

Remarkably, no such travel ban has been imposed on other travellers from Hong Kong seeking entry to Ireland.

This ‘final’ decision appears not only irrational, but also hypocritical, given the latest guidelines conveniently lifting the travel ban on athletes from cities and regions where local transmission of SARS has not been reported, meaning that the Special Olympic Games will not be devoid of two of the largest participating teams, Canada and China.

It demonstrates that the Department of Health and Children has chosen not to follow the WHO‘s advice and made a decision without due regard to the precautionary measures that the Hong Kong Special Olympics Committee had proposed to take before their departure for the games.

The official flag presentation ceremony for the Hong Kong Special Olympics team is set to take place here on June 8, an event supported by The Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association, the St Patrick’s Society of Hong Kong, the Irish Business Forum and Enterprise Ireland.

It is the fervent wish of the Irish community in Hong Kong that the Irish government remove this unnecessary travel ban.

Niall O’Reilly,

15, Mosque Street,

Mid-Levels,

Hong Kong.

[Source: This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, June 06, 2003 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/archives/2003/0606/ireland/hong-kongaposs-special-athletes-hit-by-a-peculiar-irish-infection-983257838.html]

The about-turn was remarkable.

Three days before the Opening Ceremony in Dublin, without prior notice, at 3.00 am I was awaken by the loud ringing sound of my telephone.  On the other end of the line was Denis O’Brien excitedly describing the excellent news that the Irish Government had decided to lift its travel ban and that the special athletes from Hong Kong were free to travel to Ireland. Denis O’Brien also offered to send his private jet to collect the Hong Kong team from London.

The Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin were a wonderful success, and I have heard from several people who were lucky enough to attend, the Opening Ceremony or witness it television that one of the most emotional memories of the evening was the arrival in the Croke Park stadium of the Hong Kong team when the packed house of 80,000 people stood up to cheer them these very special athletes. 

For me the abiding memory that will stay with me is being invited to represent the Irish Community of Hong Kong at the welcome home ceremony for the successful Hong Kong team. The sparkling smiles on the faces of the Hong Kong Special Olympics athletes, bedecked with gleaming gold and silver medals, will always stay in my mind.

“On June 19, I had the privilege of carrying the Olympic Torch – or Flame of Hope as it is called – and leading the Final Leg Torch Run team into Clonmel. Clonmel is a town of about 25,000 people and I would estimate that about half were on the streets to greet us. I have never seen so many Hong Kong flags in my life. They flew from the rooftops, from the buildings, from the churches and from the hands of thousands of people on the streets. And everyone was shouting Hong Kong! Hong Kong! at the tops of their voices.

“We ran into the town square where the Lord Mayor was present to greet us. I handed over the Flame of Hope. The Mayor took me to one side and told me that the Hong Kong team had not arrived. They were still in Macao under quarantine for SARS.

“To have run so far (over 200 miles) and not see the Hong Kong team was heartbreaking. I am not ashamed to say that I fell to my knees and wept.

“However, the Mayor told me that the Hong Kong team would be arriving in Dublin the following day and that a delegation from Clonmel would go to meet and welcome them. On the evening of June 21, we carried the Flame of Hope into Croke Park, Dublin, for the start of the games.

“The Special Olympics teams then marched into Croke Park in alphabetical order. I heard the master of ceremonies say “And now I see a particular team coming into the stadium. This is a team that we thought we would never see. But now they are here and we are so pleased to see them. Give a big, big welcome for Hong Kong!” About 85,000 people stood up and at the tops of their voices shouted: Hong Kong! Hong Kong! The noise was unbelievable! But it was obviously inspiring Ñ the Hong Kong Special Olympics team won 31 medals at this year’s games.

“I had a wonderful career with the Hong Kong Police Force and have had a wonderful life. But nothing in my experience is likely to top the emotion that I felt running for Hong Kong on the Law Enforcement Final Leg Torch Run.”

Source: Mr Peter Halliday, former Assistant Commissioner (Information Systems), Hong Kong Police Force helped carry the Special Olympics Games torch from Athens to Dublin http://www.police.gov.hk/offbeat/757/eng/s01.htm

"Special Olympics has not only given me the opportunity to compete, but also the confidence to compete. I am very proud of my accomplishments, and where else would I get to travel around the world?" (Source: Mei-Yu Lau - http://couch-gymnast.blogspot.com.es/2008/11/cartwheels-in_21.html ]
Gymnast Mei-Yu Lau, Team Hong Kong, on the vault at the 2003 Special Olympics Summer Games in Dublin: “Special Olympics has not only given me the opportunity to compete, but also the confidence to compete. I am very proud of my accomplishments, and where else would I get to travel around the world?”                                (Source: Mei-Yu Lau – http://couch-gymnast.blogspot.com.es/2008/11/cartwheels-in_21.html )

And so fast forward to late next week when a delegation of 1,000 Irish Special Olympians and their families will arrive in Shanghai to participate in the Special Olympics World Summer Games, 2007. Let the Games begin!

[Note: Special Olympics is an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition]

Note: My review of the Special Olympics World Summer Games, 2000, in Shanghai  ‘Words matter: Mentally retarded or human gift? Looking back at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai’ is posted here: 

https://nialljoreilly.com/2007/11/08/words-matter-mentally-retarded-or-human-gift-looking-back-at-the-special-olympics-world-summer-games-in-shanghai/ ]