On Saturday, Cleveland is set to play host to a Special Olympics event for the first time since 2012.
The annual event, which is organized by the Cleveland Civitan Club, was canceled last year due to rain on both its originally scheduled date and the designated rain date.
“It hurts your heart ... when you can’t do the event,” said Gary McDonald, one of the event’s co-directors.
He said he, co-director Jarrod Adams and other organizers are hopeful the event will take place this year to give local people with special needs the chance to compete in the athletics event.
The Cleveland/Bradley County Special Olympics will take place on Saturday from 9 until about 11:15 a.m. at Cleveland High School’s football field. The special athletes will take part in an opening ceremony before breaking off into individual sports.
The Special Olympics is the largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities in the world, according to its website. The organization’s most recent annual report, from 2012, said 4.2 million athletes had competed in 170 countries that year.
Athletes compete in a variety of sports which are in part based on where they live. Sports offered nationally include everything from soccer to sailing.
This year’s event will include the softball throw, 50-meter walking, running and wheelchair races, 100-meter walking, running and wheelchair races and the standing long jump.
While more events may be offered elsewhere, McDonald said the local event focuses on what can be done with resources available locally.
The local event is not as competitive as some Special Olympics events can be, he said. The scoring is not “real precise” because local organizers believe all the athletes “are already winners.” Any athlete who wishes to move on to the state, national or international competitions must compete in Chattanooga.
“Ours is a very relaxed event,” McDonald said. “It’s more of a field day. We make sure that they take part and have fun.”
He said having fun and encouraging people with special needs to live active lifestyles are bigger focuses than keeping scores and giving out medals.
Students from local public middle and high schools, private schools like Trousdale and clients of organizations like Life Bridges are set to compete Saturday.
The event is free to the public, though concessions will be sold for donations to the local Special Olympics cause. Everyone is invited to cheer on the athletes as they compete. McDonald said the athletes love seeing a cheering crowd at the opening ceremony because it actually does make some of them feel special and excited for the event to begin.
“They’re all convinced this is quite the deal,” McDonald said. “It’s gratifying to see how they feel about it.”
While some groups have already promised they can be there, he added the local Special Olympics can use more volunteers to be “huggers” and continue to cheer on the sidelines once the individual sporting events begin.
Those who volunteer as “huggers” have the important job of cheering the athletes on and offering them high fives and hugs whether they come in first place or dead last. It’s their job to show up and be positive for the sake of the athletes.
McDonald said he sincerely hopes the people of Cleveland will have the chance to experience the Special Olympics because it is “inspiring” for all involved. His favorite part is when the athletes recite the event’s motto in unison after the lighting of the opening ceremony’s torch.
“Let me win,” they say together. “But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
If for some reason bad weather does affect the Special Olympics on Saturday, the rain date is May 10.