Some feeling spurned by Special Olympics
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org February 14, 2013 2:18PM
Brendan Leahy, 25, before the start of his team's Special Rec basketball game at Park School in Orland Park Tuesday, February 12, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 16, 2013 6:19AM
Brendan Leahy loves basketball and practices shooting hoops nearly every day.
His Orland Park team has had such a good season that he was hoping to qualify for the Special Olympics next month.
On the day of the qualifying tournament, however, Mother Nature put those dreams on ice. A winter storm warning and icy conditions on Jan. 27 left 120 teams idle as some 400 games were cancelled at about 10 sites statewide.
The games won’t be made up, which has brought a heated reaction from parents of some of the special athletes. They are upset their sons didn’t get a chance to compete, and they argue that such crucial games would be rescheduled for other athletes.
But Special Olympics Illinois doesn’t own any facilities and relies on volunteers, according to Dave Breen, the organization’s president. That makes it almost impossible logistically to reschedule.
The only “fair” option, Breen said, was to randomly select about two dozen teams to advance to the state tournament March 15 and 17 in Bloomington-Normal. Those teams are to compete against teams whose qualifying games were Jan. 26, when the weather was better.
Leahy’s team and others won’t get the opportunity to earn a spot.
“That’s unconscionable,” said Susan Leahy, Brendan’s mother. “They should be treated like any other athlete, in any other sport. Just because they are special, they still have the right to have events run fair and square.”
The kids are “devastated,” she said.
She’s not the only one who feels that way.
The Special Olympics are “a very big deal. It’s an awesome event,” said Linda Shute, whose son Brian coaches the team that her other son, Matt, and Brendan Leahy play on.
Much like the international Olympics, there is a torch-lighting ceremony, a parade of athletes and medals to be won.
“I cannot believe they could not find a place (for rescheduled games) in six weeks,” Shute said. “They had their chance to compete taken away.”
Their sons’ team, the Orland Park Chargers, was not among those randomly drawn to participate. Both moms said these events need to be better planned in the future so this does not happen again.
“It hurts that they did not have a backup plan,” Shute said. “These kids have so many disappointments in life. It is a real shame that the one thing that is supposed to be for them is the one thing that has caused major disappointment to them this year.”
Even if the Chargers team had been randomly chosen, “it would not have been the same as playing those qualifying games,” she said. “Most of the kids that participate in these games know that they need to win the gold to advance, and that is the opportunity they wanted, just the chance to try.”
“It’s wrong. You can’t do this to people,” Leahy said.
Breen understands their frustration.
“We’re as upset as anyone. But I will always err on the side of safety. Safety comes first,” he said. “I know there are some upset people and I certainly understand where they are coming from. We want people to compete, but safety is a factor and facility availability is another factor.
“We don’t postpone,” he said.
That leaves cancellations as the only option under such circumstances, and decisions to cancel are not easily made.
“It takes twice as much work to cancel as to hold an event,” he said.
Special recreation groups don’t have the “luxury” of owning their own facilities, but usually rent space from schools or park districts, he said.
Special Olympics Illinois serves 21,300 athletes ages 8 and up, in more than 19 different sports, and another 13,000 kids ages 2 to 7 years in a young athletes program, Breen said.
While basketball, bowling and track and field are the biggest draws, all of the sports use qualifying events to determine participants, he said.
The mission of Special Olympics has always been to provide year-round sports training and competitive programs, Breen said. Events are scheduled months in advance, drawing thousands of players, families, officials, volunteers and food concessions.
“It’s not worth it to bring that many people together and have them travel in bad weather,” he said.
Breen hopes the controversy draws more volunteers to the effort.
“I hope people will take this as a positive. I hope they will join the committee and see how it works. That is what I hope will come out of this,” he said. “I hope they will participate in upcoming events. I hope they understand we are doing this for the right reasons.”