Champion leadership

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Champion leadership

A new page in the history of Special Olympics across the Caribbean

David S
Evangelista

Thursday, December 17, 2020

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As she approached the pool in Budapest, many across the world could feel the pride Alia Atkinson carried proudly for her home country of Jamaica. The London Roars Team continues to work hard to position Alia to achieve her best, with Jamaicans loudly cheering from near and far.

“Out of Many, One People” is the creed that defines a nation steeped in sports history and record-setting performance, with a pronounced place on the world stage.

As is the case with most pioneers, there was far more than what met the eye. Alia Atkinson not only represented Jamaica, she represented the dreams and aspirations of athletes all across the world. Through her performance, she propelled an entire population forward, one that is often denied more than access to the pool, but access to quality care, education, and employment. Because of this, Atkinson understood that individuals with intellectual disabilities are often denied the right to their own dignity, advocacy, and rights. It was therefore fitting that, on December 3, 2020, coinciding with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Alia Atkinson formalised her role as champion ambassador of the Special Olympics movement. She serves as the first competing Olympic athlete with such a role in the Caribbean, and has pledged her support to ensuring the public, both in the Caribbean and worldwide, appreciate the grit, perseverance, and courage demonstrated by these athletes with different abilities.

“The role of champion ambassador for Special Olympics defines the power of real purpose,” Atkinson said in a recent conversation with Special Olympics Caribbean Executive Director Lorna Bell. “Special Olympics athletes meet the challenge each day to realise their full potential, and I'm honoured to have the chance to learn from them and to share our experiences together as we strive for inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities.”

Atkinson takes the role of champion ambassador at a critical time in history. The novel coronavirus pandemic has underscored the deep vulnerability that individuals with intellectual disabilities face in the Caribbean and worldwide. Given the fact that many individuals with intellectual disabilities have underlying health conditions, this population has witnessed a disproportionate, negative, and often fatal impact resulting from the pandemic.

A recent study in Great Britain found that individuals with Down syndrome are at 10 times greater risk of death of COVID-19 than the average population. This is in addition to a lack of access to health services, low health literacy rates, and entrenched social stigmatisation, individuals with intellectual disabilities need greater protections and empowerment now more than ever before in history.

Sports, says Atkinson, is the best mechanism to achieve these goals. “The sport of aquatics has moulded me into the person I am today. It has motivated me to want to be a positive example, both for myself and for others,” said Alia. “More than anything, swimming has helped me build character, discipline, and sportsmanship.” She continued: “Sports fills a powerful role in empowering people who live on the margins of their communities. Sport has shown me, as it has shown the athletes of Special Olympics, that there are ups and downs in life, but through the lessons that swimming provides, we can and will persevere. No one knows this better than Special Olympics athletes.”

With over six million participating athletes in the global organisation in over 190 nations and territories, Special Olympics represents the largest grass roots sports organisation for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

With over 30 Olympic-type sports offered, together with delivering access to health, education, and early childhood development services, Special Olympics is poised for tremendous growth internationally, and is keen to harness the transformative power of Atkinson's new role.

“We are honoured that Alia has decided to pledge her support to these extraordinary athletes,” said Lorna Bell. “The time is now for the world to wake up to the power that results from empowering Special Olympics athletes to achieve their best on and off the field of play, and Alia is the perfect ambassador to help us achieve this much needed public and social awareness.”

“Indeed, it is a truly changing world. Our lives have been dramatically changed, but the strategies and values never change,” Alia said. “My message to the athletes of Special Olympics is: Continue to love what you do; continue to work hard, give it your all. Be brave. Always strive to do the best you can, and that way you will always succeed.”

Special Olympics athletes throughout the world welcome Atkinson with open arms and an open heart. May the world accept their talents with such champion leadership as one in the form of the newest movement Champion Ambassador Alia Atkinson.

David S Evangelista is president and managing director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or devangelista@specialolympics.org.


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