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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a guest post from Dr. John Dow, Chief of Regional Growth for Special Olympics International, and President & Managing Director of the Special Olympics Africa region.

Nelson Mandela celebrating at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games

Nelson Mandela celebrating at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games

The whole world mourns the passing of one of the greatest sons not only of Africa, but of the entire world, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

There are not enough words to express the impact that he had upon those of us who professed to love freedom, justice and equality for all.

I can, however, remind us of the very real and enduring effect that his ongoing support brought to the Special Olympics movement not only in Africa but around the world.

In July of 2001, South Africa hosted “Special Olympics African Hope” and President Mandela was on hand to light the Flame of Hope at Robben Island. The event generated massive awareness for Special Olympics on the African continent and launched a major initiative to reach 100,000 new athletes in Africa by 2005.

Today Special Olympics has reached nearly 175,000 athletes in Africa.

At the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland we had the overwhelming honour of having President Mandela address and celebrate our athletes at the Opening Ceremony with the following statement:

“Few things in life could have given me greater pleasure or brought me more honour than to be associated with the Special Olympics. I regard myself privileged to be here on this occasion. Special Olympics is a testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit. Many of you have suffered great disadvantage in your lives…you serve as an example and inspiration…you, the athletes are the ambassadors of the greatest of humankind. You inspire us to know that all obstacles to human achievement and progress are surmountable.”

At these games he also shared his vision for Africa of Unified Sports™ which the entire movement is now embracing. He indicated that, “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

I am proud to say that his vision was realised in Africa with the hosting of the first ever Special Olympics “Unity Cup” during the 2012 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Regional Unity Cup held in 2012.

Although this global icon has passed away, his spirit and determination lives on through our athletes each day and at every competition. Our prayers go out to his family and to the people of South Africa and I leave you with these words for all of us to live by from this great man:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

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