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Equal Playing Fields Within the Special Olymics?

December 2, 2010

My last class discussion was an interesting debate about sports, and how to create equal playing fields within these sports. We briefly discussed the Special Olympics, and how it allows those with disabilities to have their own bracket of competition. However, my mind went a step further. I starting thinking about the structure of Special Olympics itself and questions began flooding my mind. Are there divisions within the Special Olympics according to the severity of the athlete’s disability? Or are all disabilities treated as if it were an equal playing field?

First, what really is equality? In the Subjection of Women, Mill explains the barriers that society creates, blocking individuals such as women or the disabled from participation in sports. Mill wants to undo this barrier. But would that mean that all are on the same, equally-leveled playing field? Would it be fair for a handicapped female to race against a strong male? Or would it be fair to create divisions to create more equal playing fields? When signing up for a race, I may initially think that anyone should be allowed to sign up, giving an equal chance for each individual to register. Or is equality actually having an equal opportunity to win? A disabled individual would have the most equal opportunity when competing against those on the same capability level. So does this mean we should exclude them and create able-bodied-only events? Just some food for thought.

I started by asking my friends. The first said there should be no divisions; “Everyone can participate in whatever they want. I think if they did separate divisions, that would defeat the whole purpose of Special Olympics.” Or would it be the opposite? Without divisions, you run into the same problem as prior to the creation of the Special Olympics: individuals are competing against other individuals of higher capabilities. There are over three million athletes involved in the Special Olympics; to group them all as an even playing field seems ridiculous to me. One of my other friends agreed; “since it’s an event for handicapped people, I’m sure they wouldn’t have an issue further dividing the participants by severity.”

Professor LaVaque-Manty explained that he believes we are drawn to sports because of meaningful competition. This means a legitimate challenge, physical and emotional investment, as well as a goal involved. If the Special Olympics had no divisions, the challenge would not be legitimate and meaningful competition would be lost. So what is the final answer? Yes, there are divisions. After searching through the Special Olympics official webpage, I learned that through a process called divisioning, competitions are structured to have the similarly-able athletes compete against each other. To me, this is the best manner to addresses equality accurately within the Special Olympics. Their motto, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” says it all. By creating these divisions, victory is that much more plausible; however, even the losers have the pleasure of being offered the most equal opportunity to attempt this victory.

  1. Sara Mitchell permalink
    December 2, 2010 8:54 PM

    I completely agree that there needs to be divisions within the Special Olympics. It would be a total disadvantage for a person with immense disabilities to go against someone with minor disabilities in comparison. All disabled people are not equal in their disabilities. Not having any divisions in the Special Olympics would be like not separating genders in a 100 meter sprint. Disabilities come in all different severities and effect different parts of the body. Going back to Professor LaVaque-Manty’s belief that we are drawn to sports because of meaningful competition, that meaningful competition would be nonexistent if there were no divisions in the Special Olympics. The whole reason those with disabilities set out to join the Special Olympics is because they seek that meaningful competition that they would not get otherwise if they tried participating in sports with those without disabilities.

    • Meredith Ambinder permalink
      December 2, 2010 10:13 PM

      I agree both with the original post and the post above. As stated, we are drawn to sports because of meaningful competition. What intensifies this competition is having everyone on the same level. There should be divisions within the olympics for the same reason that they are called the olympics in the first place. The point is to gather the world’s best athletes to compete, and one must earn the honor to compete. An average Joe can’t just decide he wants to compete in the olympics and give it a shot. The Special Olympics maintains this concept of having the best athletes, yet creates a division in which people with disabilities can prove their athleticism. Just as a woman, who might not be as fast as a man, can prove her athleticism in her own division. These divisions allow the best in each “group” to prove that they are the best. Until the Olympics creates an “Average Joe” division, I think these divisions are needed in giving these incredible athletes equal opportunities to win.

  2. December 3, 2010 7:16 AM

    Just a quick but a very important clarification. There are two quite different events, the Special Olympics and Paralympics. Special Olympics is an American event, and it exists for children with intellectual disabilities. The Paralympic Games are part of the Olympic Games and exist for world-class athletes with a variety of disabilities, physical and intellectual.

    I want to mention this because athletes with disabilities tend to take it as a pretty serious dis to confuse the two.

    My chapter on this does talk about the classification schemes in disability sports. The IPC’s website also explains it.

  3. britneyrupley permalink
    December 3, 2010 9:01 AM

    I too agree that there should and must be divisions in the Special Olympics. Without these needed divisions, it creates an unfair playing field for all competitors. For example, if a person with mild autism was to compete against a person with severe cerebral palsy there would be and unequal advantage for the person who has the less severe contition.

  4. reedmarcus permalink
    December 3, 2010 7:03 PM

    While the goal of the special olympics is certainly to give those with disabilities a chance to equally compete against those with similar disabilities, making divisions is the only fair way to ensure the closest form of true equality. Without any way of dividing the field, unfair competition still would arise, which would ultimately get rid of the entire reason for the special olympics. The reason that professional sports are so competitive and entertaining is because there are an equal group of people with ultimately an equal set of talents which allows for those who participate to play at their top level and enjoy the thrill of competing with those who are as talented as they are.

  5. Mycki Kujacznski permalink
    December 4, 2010 2:08 AM

    I completely understand why people think there should be divisions for the Special Olympics because like you said, without them there would be people with mild disabilities competing against people with severe ones. However, when you think about it, there aren’t usually divisions for things such as the Crim or other races like that that aren’t designed for people with disabilities. I personally have had a knee brace since sixth grade and I also have severe asthma. It’s obviously not fair to compare that to the different severities of people’s disabilities in the Special Olympics, but I’m just trying to point out that there are also medical differences between people who would participate in “non-special?” sporting events. If there should be different divisions for the Special Olympics, should there be divisions for all races/competitions in general? Just something to think about.

  6. xiaoyzhang permalink
    December 4, 2010 11:50 PM

    I agree in some sports there should be divisions, such as wrestling. However, a small point to keep in mind is that part of the thrill in playing sports is the challenge that comes with it. You will never see different divisions in the NBA or the NFL based on a single attribute. As long as the rules are the same for every player, then it should be be fair game.

  7. ann900 permalink
    December 5, 2010 9:09 PM

    The divisions within the Special Olympics are much needed. Equality is important to anyone, and yes in our daily lives we should treat everyone equally but in athletics, everything is different. Is there a point in having everyone compete together? It is a known fact that men have more muscle mass (or the ability to have more muscle mass) then females. So is it unfair that men and women are separated in sports? No, same as with the Special Olympics. A level playing field exists within the classifications in the event, and that is the definition of equality in sports.

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