From Jan. 29 to Feb. 5, 2013, the Pyeongchang Special Olympics Winter Games was held with the slogan “Together We Can” in Pyeongchang and Gangneung. The goal of the Games was to close the bias against intellectual disability and also to create harmony between the participants who were disabled with everybody else.
At the Games, a HUFSan could be seen helping communicate with the participants who were disabled. Kim Soo-yeon, Division of International Studies, was working as a member of the Delegation Assistant Liaison (DAL), directly caring for one of the teams. The reporter met her on the spot as she was working with the participants. “At first, I had a vague idea that I wanted to experience this sports event. Then my friend told me that she volunteered to be a helper for the Special Olympics. So I applied with her. I was assigned to DAL and met the figure skating team from Iceland.”
On arriving at Pyeongchang, a discouraging scene was seen. The labor force was concentrated at the convention hall, promoting and giving out information about special olympics, and several volunteers were not enthusiastic at all about their duties. “The system is not fully perfect,” Kim said. “The understanding between the volunteers is short and the convenience for the participants should have been better prepared by making small but important adjustments, such as having enough time between the games and considering the participants more. We had trouble in almost every situation with getting information from the Steering Committee to the volunteers in making the competition be successful. Also, regardless of their tasks, all the volunteers strived for quick changes and taking actions.”
Moving to Gangneung, the figure skating team from Iceland was ready for their turn. All the coaches and skaters were watching the other skaters warm-up. “Did you see that? All of the contestants are congenial regardless of age or nation. There is a intimacy between coaches and participants from all countries. Unlike other Olympic Games, there is no sense of rivalry in this event,” said Kim.
Truly, it was wonderful. Everyone focused not on how well the contestants did, but on how much each tried to do their best. Also, the volunteers were busy encouraging and cheering the participants. Watching the game, Kim said, “They all have disabilities, but they’re good at sports.” The participants showed unbelievable skills. “The team from Iceland practiced for at least seven years.” Kim, who spent the last twenty-four hours with the skaters from Iceland told some amazing stories about them. “There were skaters from Jamaica who had only two weeks of practicing. They had no place to skate in their country, so they trained in the USA.” Intellectual abilities and environmental obstacles were no problem for them.
“Come, I want you to meet our team.” She drove me to the restroom, and we could find the participants brushing their teeth. “Hey, did you brush your teeth the way you learned yesterday?” Kim asked. “Sure did,” said the participants. It was just a conversation, nothing special, but it shows many things. There was really no difference between the participants with disabilities and everybody else. Kim who watched everything about the sport was not being just a helper to them, but a friend. “It was not easy for me to do this. But as I was trained at the culture-experience program, Host Town, before the event, I learned a lot about how to treat people including handling misunderstandings, prejudice about intellectual disabilities, and learning the right ways to treat people living with actual disabilities. Through this program, I gained more understanding about people with disabilities.
However, there were a lot of incidents related to misunderstandings by some of the volunteers. For example, there was a woman who had not recognized the right way to treat people with disabilities. We should wait for them until they need us but the woman didn’t do that. Due to the tight schedule, she forced a participant to move too quickly and the participant just freaked out. Whenever I heard this kind of news, I was disgusted. They are just slow, that’s all. Like the rest of us, they do Facebook to contact their friends, coaches, and volunteer workers. These people live their lives the same way as everybody else does.”
As a DAL member, she directly took care of the participating athletes. Not only with translation, but with introductions and watching cultural events together, as a sightseeing guide, with the proceedings of the Games, helping with shopping, and other tasks. Moreover, the DAL members were on call for the participants day and night in case of emergencies. They provided culture and the affection of Korea as part of their cultural mission. “A member of the Iceland team drank apple juice only instead of water. One day at a Korean restaurant, she found an apple juice on the menu like she always did, but there was no juice. Hearing her request, the owner of the restaurant ran out of the restaurant to get the apple juice. After getting it, the coach told the participant about the effort the owner made. Feeling sorry for the owner, she doesn’t look for apple juice any more.” Like this, the reason for participating in the Special Olympics is not just getting results in sports. For the coaches and people related to the participants, it is an opportunity to help the participants feel like regular people. And for the volunteers, it is an opportunity to show the caring side of Korea to all these special participants.
“Because it was an international event, promoting the event was important. It took a lot more time in preparing the Games compared to the caring for participants. I feel sorry for the public’s low interest and social support concerning these disabled participants overall. It could have been a great opportunity for everybody and not just for those with disabilities. I wish there would be more support and an increase in the understanding of the daily life of people with disabilities,” Kim remarked.
Beyond interpretation work, volunteers for the Special Olympics, especially the DAL members, were thought of as friends and family by the participants. Based on true comprehension of each other, both the volunteers and the participants made the Special Olympics a place for harmony in spite of institutional inertia. Along with our HUFSan who was a part of DAL, we hope social recognition about disabled people expands and it will help break the glass ceiling for them.