Special Olympics: A Sports Medicine Perspective

specialolymicsThe mission of Special Olympics is to provide year round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Doing so gives them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community. In the 1950s and 60s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver noted how unjustly people with intellectual disabilities were treated and started a summer day camp in her backyard.

The first Special Olympics Summer Games were held in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago for one thousand people with intellectual disabilities. Participants came from 26 states and Canada and competed in track and field and swimming. In summer 2015, 7000 athletes and 3000 delegates from 177 countries will be in Los Angeles for the World Games. More than 30,000 volunteers and 500,000 spectators will be attending the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world to cheer on these amazing athletes who will compete in 25 events. Although this large event creates attention, the Special Olympics movement is much more. In 2013, more than four million athletes participated in 81,000 competitions around the world. This works out to 222 games per day, or nine games per hour.

1. Fit Feet provides podiatric screenings, including checking shoe size (many athletes compete with ill-fitting shoes) and a variety of foot problems.

2. FUNfitness provides physical therapy evaluation for balance and flexibility, with recommendations for improvements and preventing injuries.

3. Health Promotion teaches better health and well-being, including hand washing, sun protection, diet and hydration.

4. Opening Eyes provides vision screening and eyeglasses when needed.

5. Healthy Hearing screens for audiology problems and provides evaluation for hearing aids as needed.

6. Special Smiles provides dental screenings and recommendations.

7. MedFest performs sports physical exams.

As medical director of the 2015 Games, I’ve experienced many challenges in putting together a medical plan for such a large multi-day event spread over a large geographic area. The medical team has to consider providing medical care for athletes at events, but with a higher number of medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and seizure disorders. We also had to give special attention to communicating with athletes with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics World Games partnered with medical groups and hospitals to provide medical expertise and oversight for the athletes and delegations during the entire course of the games.

Teams are working on the medical care for athletes arriving at the Los Angeles Airport, with a welcome center medical station set up to assure that the athletes are doing well after their trips and have all medications and other needs met. The delegations spend several days at local communities called Host Towns to acclimate to and enjoy Southern California. They will then come to the Olympic Villages at UCLA and USC and have medical care available as needed in the dorms and during non-competition times. Medical teams will be available at each venue to care for minor medical issues that may arise, with sports medicine consultants available to come to the field as needed. Any condition requiring further lab or x-ray testing can be referred to a local “poly clinic” on the campuses or a local hospital clinic or emergency department.

The goal of the medical staff at this event, as at all sporting events, is not to limit or restrict participation, but to allow and encourage safe participation. This is especially true for this population which is often looked at for their disabilities instead of their abilities. As with any such event, the hope is that the medical staff is able to take away more than they put into providing culturally appropriate, current and empathetic medical care with an increased awareness of the medical needs for this underserved population.

Aaron Rubin, M.D., FACSM, FAAFP, Medical Director, Special Olympics World Games