Special Olympics International employee and Special Olympics Virginia athlete Robert Jones shares his experience working at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
Hi. My name is Robert Jones and I am an athlete from Virginia. I competed in the 1999 World Summer Games in North Carolina on Virginia’s Unified softball team (Unified Teams are teams comprised of people with and without disabilities). This year, I was nominated and selected to be an athlete staff member at the Summer World Games in Athens. I hope this article will educate the public, athletes, coaches and fans in different areas of the world about what goes on behind-the-scenes at the World Summer Games. I feel very lucky to have had both experiences, and I believe that just participating in the Games is a wonderful experience. The headlines (in bold) in this article are excerpts from an article I wrote about my experience in 1999.
Being an athlete and a staff member are two different things. This year, I worked with numerous departments and was around if anyone needed me to pick up the slack. I greeted All Star Fans when they arrived and gave them their welcomes bags with their schedules for the following weeks. I also worked for the Special Olympics International office in Athens checking emails, communicating with staff at local offices, and researching for my article.
As we began walking through the tunnel for the Opening Ceremony parade, I was surprised to see that the whole stadium was cheering. It was overwhelming as I realized I was a part of the biggest Special Olympics events ever.
The biggest difference between being an athlete and a staff member was the Opening Ceremony experience. If you’re sitting in the stands, it’s fun to be there, but if you’re actually on the field, walking in the parade with the athletes, it’s a very powerful experience.
What surprised me the most as a staff member was how everything came together in the end. It was a little bit chaotic at times, but it was all about teamwork, and people helped each other out without getting too stressed out. While I was at the Games, I talked to people from different departments to see what they do to make everything run smoothly:
The communications department worked hard to get the most up-to-date information about the Games to the public. They get interviews from athletes from different parts of the world, take pictures of athletes, and post them on the Special Olympics webpage. They get stories from different sports each day, work with celebrities, and try to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
The team that oversaw the Games logistics made sure to get athletes to their competitions on time, and directed athletes through their sports events so they knew when and where to stop and start.
The team working with our All-Star Fans, VIP athletes and supporters, put together welcome bags that describe each guest’s personal schedule. They also provided Fans with up-to-date information about what went on throughout the week, and worked to get the Fans and their families to each of the events.
We were all so proud to be there and the athletes were able to celebrate with one another. No matter where they were from, we celebrated as one whole family.
In North Carolina, I met people from all over. Everyone was friendly, and we all traded pins, hats and shirts with athletes from other countries, as well as uniforms at the end of Games. After a competition, we would always do trades—it was something that everyone could participate in, and that everyone could have fun with. It brought athletes together, and allowed us to communicate with one another without actually saying anything if we didn’t speak the same language. If they didn’t understand English, you would point to your flag or jersey to communicate where you were from, and to show the item you wanted to trade. While I couldn’t trade pins this time around, I interviewed people who all played very different roles at the Games to learn what their experiences were like at the Games.
I interviewed the badminton team from Hong Kong. Although I had come up with my questions ahead of time, the Hong Kong team did not speak English, and I needed a translator. Luckily, one of the Special Olympics interns who I was with spoke Chinese. Here are some of the questions I asked:
Q: How is your experience at the World Games so far?
A: I am very excited to meet people from different countries.
Q: How did you like the opening ceremonies?
A: I like how the stage was set up and liked seeing Stevie Wonder.
Q: What will you take away from the World Games?
A: I am going to work harder so I can get to the next World Games!
I also interviewed the former Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States. Luckily for me, he spoke English. I interviewed him before and after he participated in a Unified badminton game:
Q: [Before the game] What do you hope to get out of the Games?
A: I am very excited to play with the Special Olympics athletes. I admire what you do in Special Olympics.
Q: What are you most excited about and how do you feel about playing with a Special Olympics athlete?
A: I have enormous admiration for people who meet their challenges and o way, way beyond. I am excited about people with disabilities that keep fighting. I enjoy being with the athletes a lot.
Q: [After the game] Did competing alongside an athlete make you feel differently toward athletes?
A: Yes, because if it wasn’t for him, I never would’ve won! I enjoyed competing with an athlete because it showed me that the athletes can do a lot more than people think. I think it is a great experience to do Unified Sports and learn what the human spirit can do. It was a joy to play.
My parents were in North Carolina in 1999 to support me, so I know the important role that families play in the lives of athletes. I spoke to two siblings of a handball athlete from Norway:
Q: What was it like seeing your sister win a gold medal?
A: I am really happy to be here and watch my sister play and cheer her on to victory. I feel honored to be here and to be her sister.
Q: Why is documentation of the events so important?
A: Lots of people don’t understand enough about Special Olympics and need to be educated more.
Q: What did you think about the opening ceremonies?
A: It was spectacular to see so many athletes from all over the world and the best part was Stevie Wonder!
After speaking with the three groups of people, I realized that despite the different roles they play, they are all united in a common cause, are all looking to support the athletes, and all genuinely enjoyed being involved with the athletes. No matter what you’re doing, if you’re working behind the scenes, cheering for a family member, participating in an event, or fundraising, what you do matters.
I learned that sometimes friendships were worth more than gold medals, and that the gifts of joy and the power of the human spirit have no need for a translator.
Being an athlete and being a staff member are two very different things, but you get a lot out of each. There are things that athletes can do and staff members can’t do, and visa versa. As an athlete you are seeing things from the outside, but when you’re a staff member, you see everything that goes into it—the hours, the hard work. It’s like being at a concert—you see the stage and the performance, but you don’t see the hard work that goes into putting the show together. I hope to encourage athletes to go to the Games and stay involved in the Movement, even after they have retired. I want the athletes to be included because they can do a lot more than people think. Working at the games shows them new cultures, new people and new languages, and lets them feel like they’re really participating in something useful and meaningful, even if they’re no longer competing. Everyone should get a chance to go at least once.