4 Teachable Moments From the Special Olympics World Games

Notes at the Olympic Village

Fans left notes of encouragement for athletes at the Olympic Village. 

Amy Lauren Smith 

In this year’s Special Olympics World Games, 6,500 athletes from 165 countries around the globe faced off in competitions ranging from badminton to power lifting.

Between the moving opening ceremonies that were viewed on television by millions of people and the athletic events that I recently attended in Los Angeles, CA, I was flooded with teachable moments for students of all abilities.

Here are four lessons that resonated with me.

1. Courage is contagious.

The official oath of the Special Olympics is: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

From the young men and women who got up to speak in front of a packed house at the LA Coliseum, to the rhythmic gymnast who I saw nail every last bit of her complicated routine, this bravery is on display everywhere you look.

2. Don’t hide from your past. Embrace it, and use it to inspire others.

One of the highlights of the opening ceremonies was when Jamaal Charles, a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, shared his personal story about growing up with a disability.

After being told he was “slow” and couldn’t accomplish anything, Jamaal’s involvement with the Special Olympics at age 10 taught him that he was fast—so fast he could fly—and it changed his life forever, eventually leading him to the NFL.

Not many professional athletes would have the courage to get up in front of the world and their fellow teammates to share their past. By doing so, Jamaal Charles inspired people to believe in themselves, and spread a powerful message about accepting diversity.

3. We could all use more hugs and high-fives.

Another highlight was when former Special Olympic athlete and entrepreneur Tim Harris—the proud owner of a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and hugs—had the privilege of introducing the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies: First Lady Michelle Obama.

Later, when I watched the amazing Korean volleyball team go on a 17-point run against their opponents, I was impressed by the way they took time after every point to give each other a double high-five.

Touch is an important part of the human condition, but we don’t incorporate enough of it into our culture. Touch increases compassion, empathy, and happiness, so the next time someone does something you admire, give them a high-five, or even a simple pat on the shoulder. And make sure you take the time to give at least one person a hug every day.

4. Everyone deserves a chance to play.

The biggest take-away we can gain from this event is inclusion. It’s the driving philosophy behind the Special Olympics, and it’s one we need to embed in our school culture—on the sports fields, at recess, and in the classroom.

Have your students check out the official Special Olympics hashtag #LetsChangeTheGame to witness the power of pairing advocacy with social media. Let them see what bravery looks like as they watch clips of the opening ceremonies or highlights from the games, and encourage them to implement that bravery in their own lives. 

Inspired to volunteer with the Special Olympics outlets in your community? You and your students can get involved by finding a program office near you