Volume 4 Issue 12 - June 15, 2006

“Our mission is to provide year round sports to all children with intellectual disabilities”: Keelor

Recently, the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs accorded Special Olympics Bharat priority status by including it in its list of sports federations in the country, thus bringing mentally disabled athletes on par with non-disabled athletes. Air Marshal Denzil Keelor (Retd.), Chairman, Special Olympics Bharat, shares the vision and mission of the organisation in an interview to Chitra S. Shankar.

1. Could you explain the concept of Special Olympics and the philosophy behind it?

Special Olympics is specifically for people with intellectual disability. Three per cent of the worlds population suffers from this disability as per World Health Organisation (W.H.O.).

We believe that if you can give them opportunities within the framework of their abilities, they become changed people. Just like all people, physical exercise affects them to the degree of 25 per cent. If they start playing games, take part in competitions, and start entering society, their confidence, courage, determination and character will build up. Thus, for them it is a natural way of building themselves up to a higher level of acceptability than what they already have. This is the main philosophy behind Special Olympics. So the mission is to provide them with sports along with other cultural activities.

2. What is Special Olympics Bharat? When was it constituted?

Special Olympics Bharat is the Indian programme. At first it was known as Special Olympics India and run on a very small scale. In 2001 it was looked at more seriously and then Special Olympics Bharat was constituted.

In India, the population of intellectually disabled people is thirty million. Most people perceive intellectually disabled people as mad and that they do not or cannot contribute to society in any manner. Therefore, they condemn these people and push them into dark corners. In our experience in India, of the 30 million people suffering from intellectual disability, 75 per cent have an I.Q. below 70 right up to one per cent. But the degree of normalcy that exists in the child of 70 downwards is amazing. And this is not a community to be discarded the way it is. Thus our mission is to provide year round sports to all children with intellectual disabilities. Our programme includes international, national, state and district events.

The significance of our programme is that we have the task of training about 230,000 athletes, unlike Paralympics, where a few people are selected and trained. It is mandatory for each and every child to be in sports.

3. What is the reach of Special Olympics Bharat in terms of the States and the number of individuals covered?

Special Olympics Bharat is currently the largest programme in the Asia-Pacific Region. It covers 26 States and we have 15 disciplines. There are 230,000 registered athletes. In addition to this, there are thousands of specially trained coaches, families and volunteers supporting the programme. As a part of our Strategic Growth Plan to reach out to as many of the 30 million intellectually disabled people in the country as possible, we have set a target to register 500,000 athletes by 2007.

4. What is the main source of funding for Special Olympics Bharat?

There is no main source. The Special Olympics International gave us the money to grow to this figure. But for the programmes nobody has given us any funds. There are four kinds of people who can give money the corporates, N.G.O.s in the field and other charitable organisations, the government and the public. Our experience is dont touch the industry. They are a disgrace. Even if they give they do so with such heavy hearts and it is a one-time affair.

From the Government weve got a little bit. But the changing world has given us the opportunity to tap the people. The public give in kind and not in cash. They take care of all facilities during an event such as venue, food, accommodation, etc.

5. Recently, Special Olympics Bharat had been accorded the status of a sports federation by the Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs. What does this spell for Special Olympics Bharat? Are there any special benefits/advantages that the priority status will bring to the organisation?

This is the core of the whole issue. It is not just about getting money, etc., but more about the removal of discrimination. If my child is a world class sportsman and yours is too, they must be equal. This step of being accorded priority status has put them on par with the mainstream sportsmen. So, what Rathore or Milkha Singh gets, my athlete will get. This is the strategic success and glory of the whole decision. The rest is fine. We are fighting, as we should, for funds, which they are reluctant to give even now.

We are already recognised by the Indian Olympics Association.

6. The Sports Minister had expressed displeasure over the enormous increase in the Commonwealth Games budget and added that he wished the budget could instead have been given to Special Olympics Bharat. Your comments.

He is a man with common sense. Anyone can see that if you have a population this huge you have to give them what they need. What am I asking for? Just three crores for 250 athletes. For the Commonwealth Games alone they are allotting 5,800 crores! But the officials were reluctant to sanction the amount I quoted. When I met the Sports Minister at the meeting, he thought Id ask for 500 crores and was surprised at the small amount mentioned. Then at the Press Conference he expressed his displeasure over the Commonwealth Games budget. He said a nick, a little corner for Special Olympics is fair, just and correct in the eyes of God.

7. How does it feel to be hosting the first ever Special Olympics International Cricket Cup in November? Which are the countries participating?

We had the first Asia-Pacific cricket tournament on our own in Gujarat. We played Pakistan. One team from Pakistan and about 25 teams from India participated. The people of Gujarat supported it. They got together, closed the school and gave us a good ground. The event was a trial and it was a total success.

Now we are holding the Special Olympics International Cricket Cup in November in Mumbai. Twelve cricket loving countries including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, England, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, U.A.E., West Indies, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan will participate in the tournament.

But these are one-time events. They touch not even the crust. An event once or twice a year is fine, but I want my children to play every day.

8. What is the selection process? How are the teams selected? Are all the players mentally disabled?

It is only for people with intellectual disability. It is not based on age, but based on abilities. They are selected and put in particular groups according to their abilities. Once they are thus identified, they are put in respective categories such as junior, senior, etc. like in all other games. It is highly professional and highly technical. It has evolved over the years and its not for an ordinary sportsman to understand.

9. Could you tell us about the training facilities you have? Do you believe these training facilities/techniques are as professional as that of the mainstream sports facilities?

Our training is better than the mainstream sports because it is well supervised. The rules and regulations are very thorough and it is very well documented. How many coaches do you have in India? We have 14,000 coaches. For every 18 children there is one coach. The coaches are very well trained. But the rest we have to find for ourselves. So we run around asking people for different needs and facilities.

We have been paying for all the facilities till now. But things are slowly changing and the attitude of people is. The Sports Authority of India has now given us office accommodation. One example of public support is the Games held in Ludhiana, Punjab. The Gurdwara accommodated and took care of all the needs of the Pakistani squad of 76 people. They ran the whole programme.

10. How do you look at the process of mainstreaming these athletes? Do you have any ideas along these lines?

People and sportspersons from the mainstream are beginning to accept them. But we are not thinking along the lines of mainstream sports. We do not want to repeat anyone. It is not about winning but more about participation. It is not for glorification of an individual and we want everyone to get one chance to participate.

As for Inclusion, its a very narrow part of our mission. But if we cant get enough food, then why run after a cake? So, before we think of anything we are trying to get the basic things in place. In that sense, Im not very happy with the International Cricket Tournament we are holding. It is a big event and distracting me from my main effort. Of course, there are certain standards when you have international games, etc. But 2000 children is a big number. If the amount of money being spent on this can be put in my people, we will be able to grow more. My focus is to give as many as thirty million children an opportunity to smile. One moment of joy is worth the effort.

11. Do you have any special initiatives to help mentally disabled athletes/people make a living?

We try to employ individuals. We are hoping that for life, each and every child gets at least Rs.500 per month, because the parents may not be able to bear the burden forever and the children cannot suffer the humiliation of being dependent on their parents for life. If they get a minimum amount to survive, it would be good enough. Some states are already providing an allowance. The U.P. Government is giving Rs.300, Sikkim has now agreed to grant Rs.500, and there is a half-hearted effort from Delhi. But we would like this to take effect in all states at the earliest, and also for the allowance to be provided to them without the hassle of them having to run around to get it. So the children, along with the confidence and determination, have at least a hundred rupees in their pocket.

12. Not many people in India seem to be aware of Special Olympics Bharat. Is anything being done to raise awareness among the public? If yes, what?

Yes, I agreed to give you an interview right away. I always tell the media that they are instrumental in informing the people and creating awareness. I find that the media is now slowly changing. With this the world will change faster.Film actor Akshay Kumar is our brand ambassador and this also helps give visibility and publicity to our programmes.

We have been doing a lot of publicity work, and there is a lot of awareness today. The very fact that the states are taking over the state programmes speaks of the awareness level. But when you are dealing with a population of billions, you find that a lot of people do not know a thing. But the awareness is definitely growing. Today, I dont have to be in the states for an event and I dont have to go to the ministry and explain myself anymore. Earlier, awareness was zero, but now everyone in the government knows about our programme.

13. Do you have any message?

I hope we are winningIntellectually disabled children have never had the things they should in their life. But they get them now, including proper accommodation when they come for the games, good food, lots of cultural activities, and more than anything else, they are not hiding in the corners. I should say that we are absolutely visible today.

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