International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2021: Bitter-sweet celebration for athletes of Special Olympics

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of athletes with intellectual disabilities have lost access to the vital Special Olympics sport and health services that they relied on.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of athletes with intellectual disabilities have lost access to the vital Special Olympics sport and health services that they relied on. Today, as we celebrate the United Nations annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia is fighting back on behalf of our athletes with Faces of Basketball, a unique online-offline activity hub and campaign designed to reach and engage our athletes across Europe.

New research from Special Olympics, using data sourced from our annual census, lays bare the devastating impact of COVID-19. Some 2.5 million athletes globally have lost all access to Special Olympics in 2020 due to restrictions and health fears. In Europe, this new data reveals that tens of thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities were impacted, losing out on accessing the many Special Olympics’ supports and interventions that they relied on in their home countries.

Petrisor Ionut Catalin, a Special Olympics Romania basketball player, felt the loss of connection with Special Olympics in-person at the height of the pandemic. He says, “It was hard that I couldn’t go out anymore, I didn’t meet my friends at competitions and I didn’t do sports anymore.” Valerie Geluykens and Tamara Medarts, a Unified Coaching Pair from Belgium, also missed face-to-face sports training and competition during lockdown. Valerie says, “We both missed basketball: being able to do sport, other than walking, biking or running… but also the team: as a player and as a coach. During Covid, the world got so much smaller.”

Yet 2020 data also showcases our resilience as a global movement, as we worked worldwide to redirect our programming and developed new creative solutions in adopting to a virtual environment. Faces of Basketball, supported by Lions Clubs International Foundation and Toyota, is one such major digital innovation. It is a unique hybrid model, with virtual basketball training delivered by Petrisor, Tamara, Valerie and other athletes and coaches. With a range of content tailored for the current Covid-19 recovery reality, it is available in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.

Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director, David Evangelista, states, “Today, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it’s more important than ever to remember that the COVID pandemic has deepened the isolation and marginalization of our athletes and individuals with intellectual disabilities both globally and here in Europe Eurasia.  Many have lost a vital lifeline to sport. Faces of Basketball provides a key platform to re-engage athletes in a way that is safe, sustainable and fun-blending physical play with virtual connection.”

A 2021 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Catalyst found that people with intellectual disabilities are almost six times more likely to die from COVID than the general population. With Europe once again at the epicentre of the pandemic according to the World Health Organisation, many athletes will be very wary of returning to play, even if it is permitted.

Faces of Basketball is a way to re-engage athletes with intellectual disabilities who have drifted from sports due to the pandemic and who, perhaps, still cannot train in person. Aimed primarily at Special Olympics athletes, the platform will showcase, for the first time, the up to 200 local, grassroots events taking place across over Europe to mark EBW; provide online training videos by and for the athletes of Special Olympics; and allow athletes to create and share tailored basketball profile cards across on our ‘Hall of Fame’ and on social media.

About Special Olympics Europe Eurasia

Special Olympics in Europe Eurasia encompasses a diverse range of cultures, languages and customs traversing 58 countries in Western, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. From Iceland to Israel, from Portugal to Russia, Special Olympics promotes respect, inclusion and human dignity for people with intellectual disabilities through sports. The next two Special Olympics World Games in 2023 —World Winter Games in Kazan, Russia and World Summer Games in Berlin, Germany—will take place in the Europe Eurasia region, bringing increased awareness and support for our movement and increased visibility for our athletes and their message of inclusion.

About Faces of Basketball

Faces of Basketball, supported by Lions Clubs International Foundation and Toyota, is a digital platform by Special Olympics to celebrate European Basketball Week and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. With a range of content tailored for the current Covid-19 recovery reality – such as online training sessions and digital basketball cards – the platform is available in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. Virtual basketball training sessions are delivered by and for the athletes of Special Olympics. It is available at: https://www.facesofbasketball.com/