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March 20, 2012

What sports is really about

Last Saturday in the Berry Bowl, several hundred people from surrounding and nearby counties converged on Logansport for an event that doesn’t draw much attention.

The Special Olympics basketball tournament, which mirrors the Indiana state high school basketball tournament, fills the Berry Bowl and the auxiliary gym with fans, players, adults and a host of volunteers who support the cause of developmentally disabled adults.

For the past four years, I’ve served as one of the volunteer public address announcers. What I can tell you is that while you’re not likely to see the Special Olympics bracket on a Web site or its best players in Sports Illustrated, if you come to even one tournament, you quickly learn how much it means to the players. They’re not out for a college scholarship or a pro contract. They’re not trying to dunk a ball over anyone or draw a technical to fire up the team.

They’re simply enjoying the game of basketball in a traditional basketball setting as much as anyone who ever played the game.

Through the efforts of many local volunteers such as Kathy Courtad, Enid Callaghan and Suzanne Chilcott, the tournament is a well-oiled machine, complete with a concession stand and souvenirs. Some teams have cheerleaders.

In the purest sense, the Special Olympics defines what real sport was intended to do long before we had the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or Major League Baseball.

It’s not about network contracts. It’s about a network of centers for the developmentally disabled and organizations that complement them to arrange transportation, practices and scheduling, as well as finding the coaches and the chaperones who can make it happen.

It’s about paying for uniforms and finding the time and a place for adults who just want to play basketball for a chance to win a state championship.

Special Olympics will probably never have its own television network, but when there are Special Olympians who play entire games and seasons the way many do – and do it without much recognition. It’s a feat that has to be appreciated.

Just a couple of years ago, we all cheered as Logansport’s Jessica Crook made the international Special Olympics. It was Logansport’s own Olympic moment, and one that virtually no one could be there in person to enjoy. Nonetheless, it was an experience for Jessica she’ll never forget and it provided us with a walking, talking, living, breathing example of why Special Olympics means so much to so many.

A few years ago, I was on a connecting flight from South Bend to Chicago when the Special Olympics were held at the University of Notre Dame. When I saw how many people were there to support games that weren’t about world records, steroids, long-term contracts or free agency, I have to say I was heartened.

Sports, they tell us when we’re children, is not about winning. It’s about competing.

Special Olympians, many of whom remain anonymous among us as they walk down our streets, serve us in restaurants and worship with us in our churches, are special people because they never forgot the lesson that most other adults all too often do.

Is a gold medal in these games worth as much as the medals that will be presented in the Winter Games or the Summer Games?

In real value, they’re probably worth more to us as a society.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

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