Reducing barriers for Special Olympics athletes

Donning his favourite blue ‘Summer Games’ bowling shirt, Robert Tarko smiles when asked whether he’s competitive. The Special Olympics British Columbia athlete has participated in every summer sport imaginable, plus curling, and is currently competing in…

4 minute read

Donning his favourite blue ‘Summer Games’ bowling shirt, Robert Tarko smiles when asked whether he’s competitive.

The Special Olympics British Columbia athlete has participated in every summer sport imaginable, plus curling, and is currently competing in five-pin bowling. When he’s not yelling “strike,” he’s advocating for the non-profit organization.

“I’ve been enjoying Special Olympics all my life,” he shares. “I’m 57 years old now – going on 58 soon. It has had a big impact on my life and my family’s. I enjoy being with all of the athletes – they’re all friends – and then getting to compete against them is a lot of fun!”

Special Olympics offers those with an intellectual disability the chance to participate in year-round sport, youth and health programs, as well as compete at local, regional, provincial, national and international levels. Through sports, the organization’s athletes see themselves for their abilities, not disabilities; their accomplishments empower them and increase their confidence. Athletes also make new friends in the highly inclusive environment.

Coaches, volunteers and the community as a whole take great pride in the organization, according to Special Olympics BC – Trail coordinator Jakki Van Hemert, who has had the pleasure to support Tarko at the local level.

“Robert is outgoing and personable; he’s always willing to help promote Special Olympics and anything he’s involved in,” she adds. “Anyone who has met him knows he loves to talk! His outgoing nature is great; it helps him spread awareness about Special Olympics and shows other athletes, potential athletes and volunteers how amazing the organization truly is.”

Tarko is not one to shy away from centre stage. He’s become a spokesperson for the Trail group, which is one of several in the region to receive financial support from the Columbia Basin Trust’s Basin PLAYS initiative, which promotes safe, inclusive, and quality sport and active living programs. Trail, Castlegar, Nelson, Creston, Elk Valley, Golden, Invermere, Kimberley/Cranbrook and Revelstoke received support from the Trust to help facilitate their programs.

“The funding we receive is invested locally to help our athletes; it allows us to keep the programs free, or as close to free as possible,” says Van Hemert. “The money goes toward travel to regional and provincial sporting events, safe sports equipment, venue rental costs, and coach and athlete development and training.”

Special Olympics strongly supports the full participation and integration of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s long been an integral part of the movement to eliminate the stigma, stereotypes, isolation and discrimination that people with intellectual disabilities face—most importantly, around access to sport, health, and education opportunities and services.

President and CEO of Special Olympics BC Dan Howe started with the organization 40 years ago, when the former physical-education teacher was inspired by the group’s mission. He remains committed to enhancing the lives of individuals through sport.

“When I see the impact our programs have on people, and how much we can support family members – including parents who have had to fight for their child’s rights for their entire lives – I’m moved,” he explains. “Seeing everyone cheering for our athletes is incredible.”

He credits sponsors like the Trust with removing financial barriers to participation, and adds volunteers are also an essential part of the organization.

“We hear from community volunteers all the time that they initially signed up to help people with intellectual disabilities, but they quickly found that it was those individuals who were helping them,” he adds. “They get so much more out of it than they expected. It’s a dynamic, positive and wonderful organization that affects so many people’s lives.”

While Special Olympics athletes do participate in summer and winter games, the program’s main goal is to improve individuals’ health, fitness and skill levels, all while building an inclusive community environment. Athletes of all ages – from infants to seniors – and at various ability levels can choose from nearly 20 sports.

“While the financial aspect of engagement by organizations like the Trust is critical, so is the acknowledgement. When someone like that contributes to Special Olympics, what they’re saying is that we’re a credible organization that’s doing good work – and they believe in us and our outcomes,” explains Howe. “Some people with intellectual disabilities have fought their whole life to have credibility – to have respect and dignity – and when an organization supports them, it’s validation. We really appreciate the Trust stepping up; it not only allows us to do our work, but it also says to the volunteers and athletes, ‘We believe in you.’”

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COVID-19 Response

While we’ve halted face-to-face interactions during this COVID period, we certainly haven’t closed down our operations. We’re doing as much as we can to keep people engaged, active and moving ahead; we’re just doing it differently.

We’re offering online home fitness and activities that anyone can use for skills development and fun, whether you have an intellectual disability or not.

It’s vitally important that we don’t forget people with intellectual disabilities, because they don’t always advocate for themselves. We encourage everybody to stay active and to stay connected. Isolation can be a big challenge, so our coaches and volunteers are checking in with our athletes. Luckily, we have the ability and resources to help because of terrific partners like the Trust.

Dan Howe, President and CEO of Special Olympics BC

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