Special Olympics vs. Paralympics: What’s the Difference?

special olympics torch run 2015

The Special Olympics Torch Run, en route to LA (Instagram)

The 14th Special Olympics World Summer Games get under way this Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with 6,500 athletes from more than 160 countries set to take part over the coming week. First held in 1968 at Soldier Field, Chicago, how does the Special Olympics differ from its counterpart the Paralympics?

Firstly, the Special Olympics is for athletes with intellectual disabilities, while the Paralympics is predominantly for competitors with physical disabilities, though it increasingly has events for athletes with intellectual impairments also. To take an example, Oscar Pistorius could compete in the Paralympics 400m, but not the Special Olympics 400m. If he wasn’t in jail, that is.

Secondly, the Special Olympics and Paralympics have differing philosophies in terms of competition. The Paralympics is very much geared towards “elite” competition, with athletes having to meet certain qualifying criteria in order to compete. By contrast, the Special Olympics World Summer Games does not exclude any athlete based upon qualifying scores, but rather divides athletes based on those scores for fair competition against others of like ability. To quote the Special Olympics website directly: “excellence is personal achievement, a reflection of reaching one’s maximum potential – a goal to which everyone can aspire.”

Despite these differences, however, both the Paralympics and Special Olympics hold one over-riding guiding principle in common: using the power of sport to change the way the world sees people who have differences. Your correspondent was fortunate enough to watch a number of events at the London 2012 Paralympics, and it was a wonderful spectacle of competition and sportsmanship.

We wholeheartedly encourage you to catch at least some of the action at the Special Olympics World Summer Games next week.

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