Not the Olympics you know, but it's still Special

The Winter Special Olympic World Games start tomorrow, and there's every chance you don't know anything about it (and, similarly, you probably don't really want to). Before you look away, though, sample this stat: India's specially-abled athletes have won 1062 medals in eight Summer and eight Winter Special Olympics between 1987-2015. In the most recent edition of the Summer World Games, in August 2015, India finished behind USA and China with 47 gold, 54 silver and 72 bronze medals.

That's serious success, at any level of sport. And even more so when you factor in winter sports, which barely exist in India. In fact, says Special Olympics Bharat's Haryana director Virender Kumar, "We often have athletes training on sand instead of snow."

Got your attention now?

The Winter Games, which continue till March 25, are the biggest international sporting movement for people with intellectual disabilities. They will have 90 athletes from Special Olympics Bharat (SOB) competing in seven events - Alpine skiing, snow shoeing, snowboarding, figure skating, floor hockey, floor ball and speed skating - out of the nine listed competition disciplines.

Given the diversity of events, and the fact that they are very niche, finding snow is only one of the many hurdles the special athletes have to face.

Take, for example, the challenge of fielding unified teams, where specially-abled athletes compete together with able partners.

The biggest challenge in putting together a unified team, says SOB sports director & head of delegation Victor R Vaz, is getting able partners to commit for events. "In the unified set-up, partners act as motivators but it's not easy to have them commit to a competition; for instance, this time of the year they have exams," he says, "On the brighter side, though, over the last three years the frequency of unified events has grown considerably."

It's also crucial to pick able partners who're closely matched in age and ability with the special athletes. "When selecting members for a unified football team for instance," coach Mohammed Khurram, who shepherded the unified SOB team in the football event at the 2015 Summer World Games says, "we assess three skills primarily, dribbling, shooting and controlling passes based on which we pick special athletes along with partners of similar ability."

Then there's the problem of coaching; it's different to the conventional idea of what coaches look for and how they go about their work. Much of that is to do, of course, with the athletes being trained. Cognitive impairment can be divided into four levels - mild, moderate, severe and profound. The average IQ or intellectual ability is 100 and to fall under any of the four categories it must be below 70. IQ levels hover between 50-69 in mild and 35-49 in moderate levels. Apart from limitations in intellectual functioning (which includes reasoning, learning, problem-solving), conceptual, social, adaptive behavior and practical life skills are also crucial in assessing the level of impairment.

The primary task for coaches is to identify the sport that each specially-abled athlete would be most suitable for based on their interest and ability. The basic assessment of specially-abled athletes' abilities - their gait when asked to walk in a line or jog, apart from their reach and height forms some of the basic parameters on which they are judged at the initial stage. Sometimes an athlete can end up pursuing two sports - one based on the coach's observation and another out of his/her volition. "An athlete may not be great in a particular sport but may be interested to participate nonetheless," says Virender, "They are emotionally vulnerable so it's crucial that they play a sport which keeps them happy."

"It's kind of voluntary work for us, a social service," says former national floor hockey coach for the specially-abled and current sports director of the Karnataka SOB program, Amarendra Anjanappa, speaking for his tribe. "There's no recognition in this field and it's very easy to find numerous reasons to give up." Yet, Amarendra has persevered in working with specially-abled athletes for close to three decades now. His focus is now on training coaches to deal with special athletes more effectively. Unlike those training able athletes, coaches in this case have a wider, deeper and more challenging mandate: Primarily to bring about athlete development through sessions which are fun and engaging. Results command probably the least of their attention.

"Sport is a form of therapy. They (The SO Athletes) enjoy the time spent in competing a lot more than the rewards. They won't ask which position they finished or what time they can go back home."

Much of this becomes clear while watching a triathlon-based fundraiser at The International School Bangalore (TISB) last month, when a few SOB athletes participated alongside the students of the school.

Bibs strapped to their chests, warming up enthusiastically following the lead of their coach in a corner of the field, four specially-abled athletes can't wait to get to on the track alongside participants who are different from them. It's something they've never experienced before, and they realize it's special.

"Sport is a form of therapy. You can see how these kids have set out of their homes, without the company of their family or friends, just to be a part of the event. They enjoy the time spent in competing a lot more than the rewards. They won't ask which position they finished or what time they can go back home. That's the beauty of sport," says Amarendra, before glancing towards the field and smiling at 14 year-old Bharath, the tiniest of the four, pulling ahead of the rest of the participants at the start of the running event.

Keeping up a handy lead for the entire first 400m round, the frail figure soon drifts away from the track and stops, hands clasped behind his back, brows furrowed, watching the other runners go past him, disoriented. "It's only been six months since he started running and this is the first event he's participating in," says Amarendra, sounding almost apologetic as Bharath, seemingly detached from the proceedings, cuts across the tracks and plonks himself under a tree.

Apart from being his maiden competition experience, Bharath also probably realized early that it's not as much fun as the training sessions. To feed his interest and lengthen his attention span, coaches usually keep treats around the track during training. "We normally place things of his liking, be it a snack or a ball, at several points in the track so that it motivates him to run and come back for training the next day. Since we train them just once a week, the process is slow and long," Amarendra says. Bharath joins the rest of the runners after several minutes, his pace slow and labored this time but manages to complete seven rounds by the end of 30 minutes.

"We have to counsel them, punishing won't help," Amarendra adds, "We have to reward them, and reward them often, for their effort, not outcome."

Running, in that sense, is a simple, inexpensive activity. It requires no special skill-sets or infrastructure, which makes participation feasible across a wider cross-section of athletes of varying abilities.

A crucial lesson, Virender says he learnt rather belatedly into his coaching years, was with regard to taking into account athlete preferences even if it sometimes goes against one's assessment. "A couple of years ago there was this special athlete who could barely walk but wanted to cycle," recalls Virender, "I tried coaxing him saying that he might end up hurting himself, but he wouldn't relent. I just couldn't dissuade him so thought I might as well give him a chance." Not only did he manage to cycle, but managed to do so with remarkable ease.

"We can never be totally sure of what an athlete is capable of," he says, "It's when we're least expecting, that they're likely to surprise us."

For now, Austria beckons and we're ready for surprises.