Report acknowledges benefits of Special Olympics while calling for modernisation

Posted by pt91 at Oct 31, 2011 11:25 AM |
Project co-led by University of Leicester sociologist
Report acknowledges benefits of Special Olympics while calling for modernisation

(L-R): Leicester West MP Liz Kendall and Minister for Sport and the Olympics Hugh Robertson.

Issued by De Montfort University on 27 October 2011

The first-ever comprehensive study of the impact of the Special Olympics GB (SOGB) National Summer Games has concluded that sport not only provides enormous social and health benefits for people with learning disabilities – but it can also act as a pathway to a greater sense of citizenship and inclusivity.

Produced by sports history and sociology experts at the University of Leicester  and De Montfort University (DMU), the Learning Disability, Sport and Legacy report was launched at the House of Commons yesterday (26 October).

The groundbreaking research behind the report showed the benefits of the games to athletes and their carers, as well as society more widely, and looked at the impact and legacy of Special Olympics Leicester 2009 (SOL 2009) on the athletes, the city and the public.

Welcoming the report, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics Hugh Robertson said: “Lessons learned from this study are immediately transferable as the nation prepares to host other major sporting events, such as the Olympic games and the Rugby World Cup."

Thanking the academics behind the study he added: “The challenge of how to drive a legacy for these events is one we all face – and the lessons picked up by your work will be of enormous use to us.”

Launched at an event hosted by Leicester West MP Liz Kendall, the report calls for radical new thinking on future games – and more central government and sports governing body funding for learning disability sport.

Guests at the launch event also heard how, despite the costs to the local authority of hosting the event, Special Olympics GB’s 2009 National Summer Games in Leicester boosted the city’s economy with an estimated £2.8 million of additional spending.

Surveys of the public were taken before, during and after the games and showed that eight out of 10 respondents agreed it was good to have the opportunity to mix with people with learning disabilities. 

Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) agreed the games brought disabled and non-disabled people in Leicester closer together.

The research also acknowledged the volunteers’ programme as an “outstanding success” with more than 1,000 residents of the city and county taking part and helping to run the games. Students and the retired were the largest groups represented among the volunteers.

The report was the result of a two-year research project led jointly by John Williams from the University of Leicester’s Department of Sociology and Professor Richard Holt and Dr Neil Carter from DMU’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture.

“The research was undertaken because the city council and SOGB were interested in leaving a legacy from the games in Leicester,” said Mr Williams.

“But they also wanted to offer future hosts some useful information about the problems they might face – and how to address them.

“The research was unusual in the sense that nobody had examined the games by looking at the experiences of all the various groups involved – organisers, athletes and families, volunteers, spectators, the general public and the media.

“We tried to cover all components to produce a more ‘rounded’ view of the entire games experience.”

The team carried out a detailed survey of public attitudes, measured media coverage and evaluated the financial and administrative challenges of the event for the local organising group and SOGB.

Professor Richard Holt explains the approach: “We surveyed the Leicester public six months before, during and after the games to see how their responses to the Special Olympics and to people with learning disabilities changed – if at all – as a result of Leicester hosting the games,” he said.

“We also surveyed volunteers and family members, interviewed games organisers and local practitioners, did observational fieldwork during the week of the games and analysed the television coverage of the event.

“What we wanted to get was a feel for what the games were like for everyone involved.”

In-depth interviewing of athletes, families and officials was carried out by Dr Susan Barton, the project research fellow, who also published the first history of SOGB as part of the project.

Dr Barton, who is now a city councillor in Leicester, said: “The research produced evidence that the games brought social, educational and health benefits as well as the obvious sporting ones.

“Our research showed that being part of Special Olympics helped to counteract the isolation experienced by people with learning disabilities. Development of self-esteem through participation in the games was also an important factor in coping with life, especially bullying.”

A key conclusion of the report is that: “Sport not only provides enormous social and health benefits for people with learning disabilities but it can also act as a pathway to a greater sense of citizenship and inclusivity.”

It also stresses that: “The Special Olympics offers important opportunities for self-realisation, competition and sociability for athletes, family members and carers. It also provides a potential forum for developing greater awareness and lasting relationships between disabled and non-disabled people.”

But it urges SOGB to modernise by reviewing several core elements of the event, including funding and fundraising, as well as the scale of the games, given the current economic climate. The report records that SOL 2009 would not have taken place, had Leicester City Council not underwritten the £200,000 costs of hosting the games and contributed a further £1 million when commercial and other funding could not be secured.

The report also urges SOGB to address the under-representation of athletes from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups. Relatively few athletes or carers were from BME communities at the 2009 games, contrasting sharply with the ethnicity of the volunteers who helped run the games, with around 40 per cent drawn from Leicester’s diverse population.

“One striking aspect of the research was the ethnic exclusivity of the games,” said Dr Carter, senior research fellow at DMU.

“It highlighted a lack of impact in urban centres, especially London, and in order to reflect the diverse face of modern Britain, Special Olympics needs to modernise.”

Welcoming the report as a watershed publication, Liz Kendall said: “The Special Olympic Games in 2009 were a great success and I am very proud of the way Leicester rose to the challenge of hosting this important event.

“Sport provides real social as well as health benefits for people with learning disabilities. I hope the Government will learn the lessons from Leicester’s Special Olympics to improve sporting opportunities for people with learning disabilities, and to inform the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”  

Leicester’s City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, said: “I am delighted that the city’s legacy of staging the unforgettable Special Olympics in 2009 has also led to this groundbreaking independent research.    

“The universities’ findings clearly validate our city’s inclusive approach, ambition and determination to making a positive difference to the lives of people with learning disabilities. That is something that we can all be very proud of.”    

Learning Disability, Sport and Legacy  – which was supported by Leicester City Council, SOGB, NHS Leicester City, SOL 2009 and the International Centre for Sport Studies (CIES) – was commissioned by SOL 2009’s Legacy Research Group and can be downloaded from the DMU website.

SOL 2009 involved around 2,500 athletes, 1,200 coaches plus 6,000 family members and carers, making it the largest multi-sports event held in Britain that year. It staged events for 21 different sports in 21 sporting venues.


Notes to editors:

An electronic version of the executive summary of the report is available from DMU Corporate Communications on 0116 207 8353 or from

For more information, please contact the DMU Corporate Communications Office on 0116 207 8353 ( or Ather Mirza at the University of Leicester on 0116 252 2415 (

Special Olympics GB (SOGB) was set up in 1978 and is the country’s largest year-round provider of sports training and competition for people with learning disabilities. The daily programme also creates a pathway for regional, national and international competitions.  It currently has around 8,500 members with much of its efforts heavily dependent on local volunteers. The first games were held in 1982 and are held at four year intervals hosted by different cities throughout the UK.

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