In September, Special Olympics Romania hosted the national conference LEADERS THROUGH SPORTS, the advocacy program dedicated to people with intellectual disabilities, with the support of the Active Citizens Fund Romania, and in collaboration with Special Olympics Iceland. The objective of the conference was to empower people with intellectual disabilities to approach the local authorities and request access to sports facilities for training, and to public funds for the organization of sports competitions.
At the headquarters of the Romanian Olympic Sports Committee, Special Olympics Romania reunited at the same table representatives of diplomatic missions, the football and basketball federations, the Ministry of Education and international partner programs, the universities and clubs supporting social inclusion through unified trainings and competitions. There were beautiful speeches, and laudatory words. But one of the most powerful moments was the manifesto of Special Olympics athletes, presented with emotion and determination in the presence of the official representatives, friends and families.
Christo Velkov, VP Strategic Development Special Olympics Europe Eurasia
“We want a society that integrates us and accepts us as equals, where people are kind and satisfied with us.
We need parents, teachers, and coaches to support us morally, to be patient and encouraging.
We trust that Special Olympics will challenge the brave athletes in many trainings and competitions. We ask Special Olympics to organize seminars that are accessible to all.
We ask the authorities to collaborate to support our projects by facilitating the access to sports venues, equipment, coaches and financial funds.”
Alexandra Catrina presenting the manifesto of the Romanian athletes
On this occasion, I had the privilege of interviewing Christo Velkov, VP Strategic Development Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, not only as an inclusion ambassador of Special Olympics Romania, but also as a devoted supporter of the movement. The interview was featured in Romanian in Republica.
In the 2000s, you were sent to Romania by Special Olympics International to revive the social integration of people with intellectual disabilities through the power of SPORTS. How did you find Romania back then and what has changed in the past 20 years from this point of view?
The first time I traveled to Romania in my life was actually when I came to Timisoara in 1989, to join the Revolution. In Romania, it started with the miners, in Timisoara. In Bulgaria, it started in my university, the Sofia University, it was a movement of the students. This was the first time I came to Romania. And it was very different, obviously, compared to when I came here as a representative of Special Olympics International more than 20 years ago, in 2000, and when I met Cristian Ispas, who is now the Director of Special Olympics Romania.
Back in the day, Special Olympics was very weak in this part of the world, so our evolution during the past 20 years is remarkable. From some perspectives, Eastern Europe has become more advanced than Western Europe just because they leapfrogged some developments in Western Europe that were already there. But Special Olympics, as a movement, has also evolved during these years a lot. Special Olympics was founded in the USA by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John Kennedy’s sister, just because they had another sister with severe intellectual disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver sensed that sport was probably the right tool to demonstrate, to showcase the talents that people with intellectual disabilities have around the world. People with intellectual disabilities may not be the best mathematicians, but they contribute to society just the way anyone else contributes. And this was the starting premise of Special Olympics: everyone can contribute to society, and everyone has the same rights.
I say the same rights. Back in the day here, in Romania, and in Bulgaria, intellectual disability was approached as “defectology” from a medical perspective while we, Special Olympics, approach it from a human rights perspective. This is one element that has changed dramatically, fortunately. There is another element which is very specific to Special Olympics: the movement started in the USA and eventually grew to become a global movement. And I will explain why I call it a movement, not an organization. There is a difference to that. But back in the day, 20-30 years ago, Special Olympics was growing. So, our natural point of contact was the Sports Ministries, specifically in Eastern Europe. After 1989, ministries were very weak, so the NGO world, the civil society world, stepped in. This is also how Special Olympics has evolved: we do sports, but sports are the tool. We are much more of an inclusion organization, a community, a grassroots organization. We have strong programming around education, around health, about athlete leadership, concepts that we have just experienced at the conference today.
Christo Velkov in Romania, 2005
I must admit that I am totally fascinated by your participating in the Romanian Revolution in 1989. How did you find out about what was happening in Timisoara, where the Revolution started, in a time when both Romania and Bulgaria were under the oppressive communist dictatorship?
It was word of mouth. We, the pro-democracy movements in Bulgaria, heard about what was happening in Timisoara. I have a vivid image of the “social media” of the day back then: people were putting their TV screens in the windows, so that the protesters in the streets could hear the messages and find out details on the evolution of the events. Obviously, one of the first institution establishments that the revolution needed to take over was the media, to be able to inform people on what’s happening, to transmit the message. And I very well remember these iconic images, with the screens in the windows. And it was very cold.
20 years later, are you satisfied with the results of your visits, when you were sent by Special Olympics Europe to strengthen the presence of the movement in Romania?
I cannot be objective because I am so emotionally attached. You know, every time I come to Romania or when my friends from Special Olympics Romania send me photos or post something on their social media channels about what they do, I cannot be objective. So at least that’s settled!
The Special Olympics Europe and Eurasia region covers 58 countries. We do geography a bit differently: we cover all of Europe and the former Soviet Union republics (Western Asia) with Special Olympics national programs. Special Olympics Romania is a Special Olympics national program, and we have programs in over 170 countries worldwide, just like in Romania. But not many of them are as strong as Special Olympics Romania, which is a solid organization.
It’s not fair to compare Special Olympics national programs just because they work in different circumstances. They have evolved differently. The environment is different, the needs are different. But it’s fair to say that today Special Olympics Romania is a strong organization, mostly around athlete and youth leadership.
You can say whatever you want about Romania, but Romania has very strong sports traditions and history. That’s a fact. So, in a way, when Special Olympics was growing in Romania, sports excellence was not an issue. Sports excellence was there, it has always been there because of the traditions in the country. But there was an important piece of work in Romania…
Let’s put it this way: it’s often said that the team is as strong as its weakest link. Community, society is as strong as its weakest link. People with intellectual disabilities and Special Olympics athletes are here to help the weakest link in a society. They are not the weak. The weak are those who think other people are lesser than them, that other people deserve less than them. The people who don’t see the talents, the gifts, the determination, and the grit of every individual. And Special Olympics athletes are fantastic to demonstrate that stigma does not belong here, that everyone contributes something to society. And this is something that Special Olympics Romania does very well.
Nevertheless, I would like to see Special Olympics recognized a bit more in Romania as one of the three Olympic organizations. The Olympics movement has three legs: it’s the Olympic Games, it’s Paralympics, and it’s Special Olympics. And Special Olympics is not recognized as it should be by the sports world in Romania.
Official representatives at the advocacy conference in Bucharest
Is the situation different in other countries?
It is different. Most often, Special Olympics sits at the same table with the sports federations, with the National Olympic Committee, and with the National Paralympic Committee. This is not the case in Romania yet.
And it’s not a matter of taking a bigger slice of the pie that’s there. It’s a matter of expanding the pie that’s there. There is another element which is specific to Special Olympics: Special Olympics happens every day. We are not about the elite, top level sports records events that everyone watches on television. We are about what happens in schools, what happens in small towns, in the sports center of a town: how they are open for all athletes, no matter what their abilities are. And here, Special Olympics is much more active than the other two Olympic organizations, where athletes train very hard, obviously, to achieve records, to achieve elite results, an achievement that, in a way, becomes the most important thing. Totally valid. Makes sense. We, at Special Olympics, measure success differently. Our athletes are fierce, they’re fierce competitors. I can never compete against them. But there is much more than that.
So, it’s interesting because I remember Nadia Comaneci, or I remember the legends about Nadia Comaneci. I don’t remember the way she competed because I don’t think we had a TV at home in Bulgaria back then. But I remember the legend and Nadia Comaneci has been very involved with Special Olympics internationally. And she’s moved mountains internationally for Special Olympics. When she wants to do something in Romania with other sports legends, they do it because of their reputation and influence. Beyond that, in Romania Special Olympics is not yet recognized formally to sit at the same table in the Sports Ministry.
For instance, in Bulgaria, the Ministry of Social Affairs is very engaged with Special Olympics. They were actually competing with the Sports Ministry who would be taking care of Special Olympics just because they both recognized the value and the social impact of our movement.
If they were considered part of a ministry, would the access to funds for training and competitions be easier?
More formalized, I would say, more long term.
Special Olympics Romania is funded as an NGO, mostly by foundations, by international development agencies. Today you saw the commitment in terms of their presence, but also the financial commitment of several diplomatic missions: the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, and the European Union. They fund Special Olympics Romania much more than the national government.
Local governments are a huge help to Special Olympics when they make available their facilities, their transportation, because if you want to play football, you need a place to play. And if you want to go swimming, you need a pool. And local governments who manage these facilities are of huge help. Beyond funds, opening the doors of the sports facilities is a huge help to Special Olympics in Romania.
Young, happy and empowered Romanian athletes
Do sports clubs in other countries open their doors to persons with intellectual disabilities and to Special Olympics trainings?
Well, that’s also evolving, fortunately. What we do is a journey, we can never say “okay, today our job is done”. The day we say our job is done is the day we start failing. It’s a journey, it’s a long road. The same thing with sports clubs. Again, there are some economic realities of the sports clubs, professional or amateur, but they start to open their doors to athletes of different abilities.
Today, the door to inclusion is more open than it has ever been in the world. The communities with different sexual orientation, racial background, religious convictions around the world are more accepted than ever before. So, I repeat, the door to inclusion has never been as open as it is today. Not yet for people with intellectual disabilities.
Not yet! People with intellectual disabilities don’t set up associations themselves. They don’t lobby themselves. People with other differences (religious, racial, gender based), they will get organized, they will lobby for their rights. As a result of that, people with intellectual disabilities are a bit left behind. Special Olympics tries to do some of that, but again, it’s a thin balance because we do not want to take away their voice, but to encourage them to be in the front and do the talking. Like today, at the LEADERS THROUGH SPORTS Conference here, in Bucharest.
I was very emotional. I had tears in my eyes at the second part of the event, when the Special Olympics athletes led the conversations. The first part was like a diplomatic summit, which is fantastic to witness. I don’t know the last time in Romania the EU, the US Embassy, and the United Arab Emirates Embassy were all in the same room. Today, they were in the same room, at the same table, to talk about Special Olympics, which was a fantastic endorsement of their commitment, and of the movement. But then the second part of the event, when Special Olympics athletes spoke about their lives and their experiences, this is what it’s all about!
And it’s very simple when you see it, when you experience it, you see how simple inclusion is: we don’t need PhD papers and dissertations. Once you do it, once you see it, you understand it. And therefore, sports are a good tool for that: when you see it, you understand it right away and it works.
You have mentioned the embassies. Timothy E. Gerhardson, Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, was saying that there are over 100,000 Special Olympics competitions a year. How are they funded?
As I said earlier, Special Olympics happens every day. These competitions, they don’t have to be national level competitions, they can be small city level competitions, or just between two teams.
To come back to your question: How is the Special Olympics movement funded? The Kennedy family, when they founded Special Olympics, they put a bit of money aside. But it’s definitely not sufficient – if we relied on that funding only, we would be nowhere near where we are today. The needs are there. There are about 260 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world. Special Olympics provides services to about 6 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world: only scratching the surface.
We are funded in many places by national governments, charitable foundations, individual philanthropists; also, businesses see the value to support Special Olympics in the communities where they live.
We rely a lot on volunteers and family members, and therefore I call Special Olympics a movement, not an organization. The organization is actually very small. I’m employed by Special Olympics International, and we are about 250 employees. There is no global organization in the world, present in 190 countries, with 250 employees. But Special Olympics has developed this model, where Special Olympics Romania, for instance, as part of the global movement, is pretty independent. We, the international part of the organization, support financially and otherwise Special Olympics Romania. But Special Olympics Romania also seeks funding from local donors, from the national government, local administrations, and companies. And most of the people who support Special Olympics are volunteers: volunteer coaches, families of athletes who really see the value of this movement, for their children to be connected.
Families on one side are really committed and knowledgeable about the needs of their relatives with intellectual disabilities. But on the other hand, they also need help, they also need support. For instance, Special Olympics has a program called Young Athletes, starting at the age of two or even earlier. A family has a baby; six months later, they see the baby behaves a bit differently. They don’t know whom to call. They don’t know where to get information. And probably, even more important, they don’t know where to find a shoulder to cry on. They need this emotional support, an emotional support network that they don’t have. Special Olympics provides this connectivity, for those early steps are probably the most difficult ones for the families and for the young children. So, this is where we start, and we go till a person desire to be involved with Special Olympics.
How is the international office organized? When you are in a regional organization, you always tend to look up to the Center, to the main headquarters.
The office of the Special Olympics Europe and Eurasia is very dispersed. We are about 20 people, and we work from Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Poland. We have two or three people in each of these locations. In the Special Olympics Europe and Eurasia Office, we have more nationalities than the number of people we have – it is great to bring this diversity, and these different points of view at the same table. About two years ago, we recruited somebody who is based in Italy, Milan, who is originally from Cameroon. He arrived in Europe as a refugee and today’s he’s married in Italy, he will get his university degree in International Relations soon. He leads the Special Olympics program called “Unified with Refugees”. We are as diverse as the world we want to see.
We also have Special Olympics athletes in advisory positions, on the staff positions across the Special Olympics movement, which is very natural and very normal to us.
How is the work of Special Olympics in the ex-Soviet countries?
It varies from country to country: very different environment, very different economic realities. For instance, some of them are extremely wealthy. They approach social responsibilities differently. Obviously, there is the legacy of “the state takes care of everything”, and we must deal with it in many countries.
But I would not limit the different approach to the ex-Soviet Union. France is the most socialist country that I’ve been to after I left old Bulgaria, in the nineties: today’s Bulgaria is much more capitalist than today’s France. In France, everything is government. The charity concept is a very Anglo-Saxon concept, so it’s not one size fits all. And Special Olympics provides much flexibility.
In some parts of the former Soviet Union, the priority of Special Olympics is gender equality: there aren’t strong traditions for young girls to play sports. So, we’re looking at gender equality. In Special Olympics, 45% of participants are female, which is way above any other sports organization. But again, that’s not valid in every single country.
I, personally, also work in Israel. Special Olympics in Israel is very often seen as a reconciliation platform, where everyone is welcome to the team, to the swimming pool, to the football pitch, to the basketball court, regardless of religion or ethnic background.
I remember, about two decades ago, in former Yugoslavia, the first time the leaders of the emerging countries got in the same room and sat around the same table was at a Special Olympics event. They were still fighting, there were very few things they would agree upon. But they agreed that sports and people with intellectual disabilities were a non-political issue, where they could work together. So, there is this element as well, from the history of the Olympic movement: we stop the war, we do sports.
Ionut Paunescu, proud Special Olympics Romania champion
Although you are not very objective when it comes to Romania, you still have the broader perspective on the regional offices. What is your main concern about Romania?
As I mentioned earlier, Special Olympics Romania is struggling to get recognition from the National Ministry of Sports. In Iceland, for instance, Special Olympics is a very well recognized part of the Ministry of Sports, where they have their decision-making power and governance structures. But today Special Olympics Iceland came here to learn from Special Olympics Romania specifically two elements: how to work with younger athletes through early childhood development programs, which Special Olympics Romania manages very well. And athlete leadership: how to empower athletes and put them in the driver’s seat.
Today, some of the Special Olympics young leaders read us a very powerful manifesto. If you were to have a message for Romanian decision makers, both from the public and the private sectors, what would it be? The inclusion concept is very much talked about in Romania, in CSR campaigning, but less implemented. Why should they support and be associated with this huge global movement, Special Olympics?
CSR is a term that has existed for a while. Diversity, equity inclusion is something that people started talking a lot about two years ago. Special Olympics is much more than that.
When we talk with a company, it can be a national company or the corporate multinationals, it is as simple as that: people with intellectual disabilities represent 3% of the people around the world. You, as a company, must fight very hard for a 3% market share. Simple business: you’re leaving a lot of money on the table if you don’t think about people with intellectual disabilities and their families.
There is something else, and we have research to back this argument. Athletes with intellectual disabilities are very resilient. For me and you, I like to think the door is open everywhere we go. Not for them! From very early age, they’ve had to fight for everything they got. That builds resilience, that builds resourcefulness. Companies would do anything to have that sort of thinking within the workforce, within the leadership. Diversity brings that to a company, diversity makes any organization more resilient, more resourceful, more creative, more innovative. So, the conversations that we have with companies now are way more advanced than “give us a bit of money, and we will put your logo on the poster”. Some understand it, some not yet. But this is the way to go.
Which are the big companies that support Special Olympics International?
Coca-Cola have been with us since the very beginning. Others come and go, of course: it’s all about strategies, priorities, visions. Sometimes you have visionary corporate leaders, sometimes a company starts to work with Special Olympics bottom up, and then they see the value and scale it up. We’ve been working with Toyota, for quite a while, they’re a committed sponsor to the Olympic movement. Actually, they’re more committed to Special Olympics now than they were in the past just because they see the value of being engaged with us every day, as opposed to sponsoring an event that lasts a week. Special Olympics will never pretend to provide the same audience or viewership. This is not what we are about. We’re much more about the emotional engagement, the long-term relationship. If a company needs viewership, we tell them that we’re not the right people for that. This is not what we’re about. The media doesn’t pay much attention to Special Olympics either because they don’t know how to approach it: sometimes they approach it as a sports organization, and this is not the right way. But the media is also evolving, moving much more towards the human story behind anything. In an ideal world, they will come to our events not just for our famous ambassadors, but in line with their values and mission, with their true desire to support and promote social inclusion.
Team Special Olympics Romania
What is the relationship between Special Olympics and the official Olympic Committee?
We have formal agreements with the International Olympic Committee, but we are governed differently. Our headquarters is in Washington, not in Lausanne. We are a global nongovernmental organization, we are not registered as a sports federation, so we are closer to the large global NGO organizations such as Save The Children than to FIFA. We and the International Olympic Committee don’t own the same commercial properties. Therefore, we don’t have the same sponsors, and we do not do our games at the same time and place as the International Olympic Committee. But Special Olympics holds World Games, as we will have in Berlin next year: the Special Olympics World Summer Games. They are branded as the largest humanitarian event of the year: we will have 7000 competitors, and 20.000 volunteers.
Something that the Olympic Games or the Football World Cups increasingly include in the process when they host a large event somewhere is the social and the environmental impact of holding the event there. For Special Olympics, this has happened since the very beginning. We obviously look at the sports technical side facilities, safety, comfort of the athletes. But we also look at what the legacy will be for that part of the world if we choose to hold the games there. For instance, holding the last Special Olympics Summer Games in the United Arab Emirates had a much, much larger impact than the seven, eight days of competitions. The very language in the United Arab Emirates changed: they no longer use the term “people with disabilities”, they are now “people of determination”, and that’s big!
Moreover, the United Arab Emirates have committed vision, inspiration, and funding globally to lead towards integrated education. And now Special Olympics Romania is implementing a pilot project to demonstrate that segregated schools are not a valid option. This is a follow up of Special Olympics International choosing to hold the games in the United Arab Emirates, this is part of their legacy. So, we approach a venue a bit differently from other sports organizations.
Christo Velkov, Viorela Mihai and Cristian Ispas
As Vice President of Strategic Development for Europe and Eurasia, which are your main priorities for the Special Olympics movement in the next, let’s say, 10 years?
I never think in terms of where I see the movement of Special Olympics going. I would rather see the other way around: the world becoming much more inclusive and seeing the value of diversity; the world accepting, recognizing the value of diversity much more, as diverse communities are building a resilient global community. And if Special Olympics is a drop in the ocean in that process, it’s fantastic.
We work with open-source mindsets. We are not an NGO with the mindset that this is our territory, this is our positioning, we must keep it for ourselves because that gives us a competitive edge. We see things exactly the opposite way. And while we might not have the resources to achieve everything that we want to achieve, we want to inspire. Therefore, we call Special Olympics a movement, not an organization. I invite you all to experience our competitions, meet our athletes and volunteers, and join the #InclusionRevolution. For the love of sports, in a fair-play society of all abilities and backgrounds.