For the Love of the Game

One day last June, there was an item in the Star Beacon about the Torch Run for the Ohio Special Olympics.

The annual Torch Run begins at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and takes about four hours to reach the Ashtabula-Lake County line. From there, the torch wends its way to Columbus for the start of the Summer Games.

That same day, there was an article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site concerning the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Among other things, the commission found that spending on athletics at 97 public colleges in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision (the old Division 1-A) increased by an average of 38 percent between 2005 and 2008, while spending on academic programs grew by 20.5 percent. The commission also cited an analysis by USA Today that found that only seven of the schools had made money on intercollegiate athletics in each of the last five years.

Most college coaches are not rich, of course, and most college athletes are looking for little more than a chance to compete while getting an education. Their goal isn’t to get drafted by a professional team; their goals are to get a degree and then a job.

Coming upon the two stories in quick succession, however, made it hard to ignore the differences between big-time college athletics and the Special Olympics. And they brought to mind a wonderful passage about the Special Olympics in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.

The book is subtitled, “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” and to illustrate one of her points, Lamott writes of being at a Special Olympics event and watching a girl on crutches take what seemed to be “four hours” to finish a 25-yard race. It was noon, it was hot and Lamott wanted to go get something to eat. But when the girl finally finished the race, “you could see that she was absolutely stoked.” Lamott wrote, “It was about the beauty of sheer effort.”

The Special Olympics isn’t about world records, TV deals or free agency. It is about giving people a chance to compete. For most of us, the opportunities to compete – on the sandlots, in the gym, on the golf course, at the bowling alley or in the backyard – are always there. A lot of us ignore them and watch TV instead, but we could get in the game if we wished.

People with developmental disabilities have fewer opportunities, but they are so very appreciative of the ones they have. I know this from working at Ash/Craft, where the Special Olympians come to work the day after a game or meet anxious to discuss their experiences. Losses bother them, of course, but it is obvious most them would rather play and lose than not play at all.

If there were no big-time college athletics, the great athletes would still play the game, even if it were for Walt’s Diner and Body Shop. And the professional scouts would still find them, even the athletes playing in Paducah, Punxsutawney and Pierpont.

For most of us, though, it’s not whether we win or lose or get to the next level. The important thing is that we have a chance to play the game, and that’s what Special Olympics provides for people with developmental disabilities.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, June 21, 2010.

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