Sports

The winning spirit

JAMES DEACON February 3 1997
Sports

The winning spirit

JAMES DEACON February 3 1997

The winning spirit

Sports

JAMES DEACON

The thermometer read -35° C last week and there was a blizzard howling across the prairie, leaving Terrylinn Johnson cooped up inside. The 35-year-old cross-country skier from Steinbach, Man., southwest of Winnipeg, is on the Canadian team heading to the Special Olympics World Winter Games, held from Feb. 1 to 8 in Ontario, and she did not like missing a day of training so close to a major competition. And because she was at her mother’s home in nearby Anola when the storm hit, she was cut off from the stationary-skiing exercise machine in her Steinbach apartment. But training is not Johnson’s only concern. Even though she is a seasoned competitor, she has to overcome nervousness about going to a new place and being surrounded by so many strangers. ‘That’s what’s so scary—you never know what to expect,” Johnson says. “But I’m willing to try. Even though I get scared, I don’t want to give up.”

That spirit is the backbone of the Games, which organizers say will be the biggest

worldwide sporting event of the year. It brings together about 2,000 mentally handicapped skiers, snowshoers, figure skaters, speed skaters and floor-hockey players from more than 80 countries in Toronto and the Georgian Bay resort community of Collingwood. Most similarities to big-time sports, however, end there. There is no pot of gold at the end of the downhill run, nor lucrative endorsements awaiting winning skaters. And ratings are hardly the only reason why opening ceremonies and daily highlights will be televised on The Sports Network—TSN is a sponsor of Canadian Special Olympics. At a time when professional athletics are woefully mired in greed and cynicism, these Games champion the joy of participation and the ideals of amateur sport. Snowshoer Jamie Beddow, one of 82 competitors who comprise Team Canada, told Maclean ’s he was excited to be able to race at a world event, and hoped to win a medal. “But if someone else wins,” his mother, Margaret, added, “Jamie will be out there shaking their hand and slapping their

back. He’s happy no matter who wins.” The Toronto-Collingwood bid to host the 1997 Games was led by Toronto brokerage executive John Scott and former Canadian Special Olympics program director Lynne Hallinan. Scott, who attended the 1993 Special Olympics Winter Games in Schladming, Austria, says he was inspired by the athletes’ joy and achievement. But the organizing committee has been unable to raise all of the $9.4million budget and may have to rely on an Ontario government guarantee to underwrite the shortfalls. Scott said he would not know the final tally until the last tickets were sold, but insiders estimate the normally tightfisted Harris government will have to pay about $4 million. “It has been a lot tougher than we anticipated to raise the money,” Scott said. “The sponsors have been great, but we could use more of them.”

With the 1997 Games, the Special Olympics movement is returning to its roots. The international organization was initially funded by the Washington-based Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foun-

dation, but it was physical education professor Frank Hayden whose early 1960s research at Hamilton’s McMaster University that first contradicted the notion that people with mental handicaps could not withstand high levels of exertion. Hayden, 66, who cofounded Special Olympics in 1968 and now works as a consultant to the Canadian Special Olympics office in Toronto, demonstrated that sport enables

athletes with mental handicaps to enjoy better health and higher selfesteem. “You just have to be there,” says Jim Jordan, president of Canadian Special Olympics, “to see the smiles on their faces, to know how much this means to them.”

Hayden’s hypothesis has been ratified by the more than one million athletes now competing in Special Olympics programs in 140 countries. Jamie Beddow, who next week will race in the 100-, 200and 400-m events, was once painfully shy and withdrawn.

Now, his mother says, the 26-year-old has a job at a local grocery store where he easily interacts with customers. “We have a real chatterbox on our hands,” Margaret Beddow says with a laugh. Terrylinn Johnson, meanwhile, did not talk at all until, at a local workshop for the mentally handicapped when she was 10, a teacher put her on a pair of cross-country skis. “She tried, she fell, she got up and fell again,” says her mother, Florence. “But she learned, and now she skiis like the wind and she gets along with everyone she meets.” Johnson’s skiing has enabled her to compete in national and international events, including the 1994 Paralympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she won a bronze in the five-kilometre event. She hopes to qualify for the 1998 paralympic team in Nagano, Japan, because, even though going to new places is “scary,” it is also the most exciting part of being in sport. “I didn’t even want to come home from Lillehammer,” she says. “It was beautiful, and not so flat as here.” Her many medals, it seems, are the least of Johnson’s achievements.

JAMES DEACON

Winter Games return the Special Olympics to their roots