Cape Town – South Africa’s team of 70 athletes has touched down in Abu Dhabi for the Special Olympic Games, where their fighting spirit will be tested to the maximum against 7 500 competitors from around the world.
Team SA are hoping to live up to their spectacular performance in the 2015 Games in Los Angeles, where they earned 61 medals.
The Special Olympics is for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Mathews Phosa, chairperson of Special Olympics South Africa, has urged the country to get behind the team.
“Every day our athletes face prejudice, discrimination and a lack of belief in their abilities,” he said. “This is coupled with limited access to sports facilities and equipment and perhaps the most heart-breaking of all, very little support or acknowledgement from our society. However, despite all of these obstacles our athletes remain committed and they persevere.
“We are asking South Africa to get behind our national team.”
Jami-Ley Wheatley is a sprinter from Silversands in Mitchells Plain. At just 16 years old, she’s one of the athletes representing South Africa at the Special Olympics, in the 100m and 200m disciplines.
“I’m feeling a bit nervous but good,” she said.
One side of her brain isn’t fully developed, so she has the mental capacity of a child a few years younger. But athletics has given her the confidence to look past her obstacles.
“Athletics doesn’t make me think, ‘I can’t do this because my brain is too young’,” Jami-Ley said. “It gives me the power to say I can do it and I’m not going to quit.”
She said her teachers at Mitchells Plain School of Skills and her family have been her support system in the moments when she wanted to give up.
“If I say I can’t do it, then they’ll push me to a point where I say I can.”
Jami-Ley said doing sports had taught her to care about her health, and said other children with disabilities shouldn’t give up on big dreams.
“They shouldn’t say they can’t do it because they have a disability, because having a disability isn’t a curse, it’s actually a blessing,” she said. “You will push yourself more to achieve what you want.”
One of her supporters is coach Wendy Smidt, a teacher at Jami-Ley’s school in Mitchells Plain and a technical official for Western Province Athletics.
Smidt is overseeing the team of 12 track and field athletes competing in Abu Dhabi.
“We’re definitely bringing medals home,” she promised.
Smidt became involved with Special Olympics after she saw children with intellectual disabilities becoming disheartened when they repeatedly lost against mainstream schoolchildren.
“We just thought that we need to get these learners somewhere where their confidence will be boosted and they don’t feel like they are losers.”
She said her athletes competing in the Special Olympics still faced discrimination and ridicule from mainstream children, who sometimes call them names.
“I tell them, when I go out I brag about you,” Smidt said. “I tell (the critics) what you are capable of doing. Some of them don’t even get off from their couches and here you have a disability (and you’re competing in sports).”
Smidt said a vital difference in coaching children with intellectual disabilities is for the coach to focus on positivity rather than criticism.
“Encouragement from the coach is very important,” she said. “In our children’s case, they want to do it, but they’re not always able to do it. But they will push because they want to finish and I really take my hat off to them.”