On Monday the curtain fell down on the six-day, inaugural Special Olympics Asia-Pacific Games with a spectacular opening ceremony at the Hunter Stadium in Newcastle, Australia. SportBusiness International editor Matt Cutler spoke to Tim Shriver, Special Olympics chairman, about the challenges and opportunities around the organisation's continual drive to take people with intellectual disabilities, and the people who love and care for them, out of the shadows through the power of sport.
What's taking up your time at the moment?
Talking to as many people who will listen about what we think is the extraordinary power of people with intellectual disabilities – they have a capacity to inspire whole nations to think about and act more positively towards inclusion and social justice.
People with learning difficulties, surprisingly, are still largely excluded from mainstream discussions about sport and the broadscale political and social discussions around health. Our people just don't surface as a priority.
Even in the wake of the Olympics and the Paralympics, where there is increased attention to the day-to-day importance of sport as a way of life, we still feel there is a challenge for athletes with learning difficulties to be included. You can go to sports clubs around the world and find programmes for children, adults, and women – but not for people with intellectual disabilities, still to this day.
How does the Special Olympics differ from other social inclusion movements?
Big civil and social rights movements tend to bring changes in law, but that's not to say they change hearts and minds – there's an assumption that if you throw everyone together in the same room, neighbourhood or school that they will automatically get along. In our case that's not true, so we have honed in on the hearts and minds agenda.
That means we have focused on broad mandates around public awareness and social media; broad campaigns, for example, about the use of the word 'retarded'. Change your language – don't call your friend a 'retard'. This has no political or legislative mandate – it's a challenge to your heart and your mind, because you think about the deeper meaning of using a word like that.
How has the funding model for the Special Olympics changed in recent years?
The main change is that developing nations like India and China have stepped up to the plate in the last decade. Their governments have started channelling significant resources to us. In Europe, too, we are getting more attention from governments.
We're growing, but we are still only one hundredth of the size we need to be to be effective in making significant global change.
How do you reach that size?
I don't know that we have the answer, but we can certainly make significant progress by getting smart in the digital space. It is vital our people get a human touch, but can we use digital to go from four million athletes last year to 10 or 15 million using a suite of applications that really gives parents and families access to creative ways to get healthy, and get engaged in the movement?
We also need a couple of partners to help us. If you look at the Olympic Movement, in 1984, going into the Los Angeles Games, there was a really fragmented sponsorship programme, and that all changed. We haven't cracked the code when it comes to sponsorship as we don't have brands knocking down our door to get their logos on the side of our jerseys. I don't have the exact solution, but I take solace in seeing a huge amount of people come into our movement and really have their lives changed. Once that happens, they don't leave.
Do you see the Paralympics as a competitor?
Not at all. I have huge admiration for what the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) has done, but its objective is the opposite to us in many respects. We want to make sure every person with an intellectual disability has the chance to compete – the IPC is trying to elevate its athletes as the best, but we are trying to find our athletes' best, and that's it. Who's the best footballer in the Special Olympics? We don't answer that question.
It's worth saying, though, that we are looking to learn from the great strides the Paralympics have made, particularly in 2012. For one, they have been incredible in engaging fans in the competitions – we struggle in that a lot, and we are talking to them and their partners about the best way to go about achieving that.
Obviously the movement relies on support from the commercial world – how easy is it getting partners now compared to 15 years ago?
I think back then we were seen as a sweet charity for disabled people. Now there is a greater recognition that we are a social movement for everybody.
Is it easy talking to potential backers? Not at all. Let's be honest – we represent the most vulnerable people in every culture across the world. They are the people that society has forgotten about, and they are forgotten about for a reason – people don't care. We feel like we have discovered the fountain of youth with the Special Olympics – but it's hard to convince people to jump in.
But hasn't Coca-Cola supported the Special Olympics from almost the very beginning?
I think Coke has often been led by people who understand that great companies have deep, deep responsibilities to citizens, culture and community values. The advertising and promotion around the Coke brand really tries to speak to the best of human spirit. The company has always understood that positivity is an aspirational quality.
Coke sees our people, people with intellectual disabilities, intuitively as people who are living a full life, and we work with them all over the world.
Why do you host major events like the Asia-Pacific Games?
For the complete opposite reason to most other sports and organisations, actually – if you take the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games, they are the ultimate destination for their competitors. For us, our largest events are a vehicle to the destination, the destination being your community, home, church or family. We're trying to point all the attention back to the horizontal dimensions of sport, while other events try to point vertically to the pinnacle – our pyramid is inverted.
The Asia-Pacific Games will see over 2,500 Special Olympics athletes take part in nine different pursuits: athletics, basketball, bocce, badminton, cricket, football, table tennis, ten-pin bowling and swimming.