Monday, March 6, 2017

Why I Am in Favour of the Special Olympics

I was involved in a conversation at the weekend in which the topic of the Special Olympics came up. A couple of people expressed a negative view of the event. These were people with whom I was in sympathy on most subjects, so I was a bit surprised, as these games seem a very laudable activity to me.

I mentioned the conversation to my father, and he surprised me by saying that he doesn't like the Special Olympics either, and never watches it when it's on TV. "I don't like to feel embarrassed for someone", he said. He developed this into a complaint about Dancing with the Stars, a reality TV show where celebrities learn to dance. In Ireland, a fat sports commentator has recently become something of a sensation on this show-- my father thinks people are simply tuning in to laugh at him.

Finally, today, I mentioned both these conversations to a friend in work, the colleague I like the best and with whom I agree on most things. He told me that he doesn't like the Special Olympics either. "It's patronising", he complained.

So I've been mulling over this topic in the last few days.

One of the arguments my colleague made against the Special Olympics is that nobody actually watches it. And I admit I've never watched it. (But I rarely watch any sports.) I'm not sure that this argument is very powerful. Society subsidises and supports many things which we hardly expect anyone to pay much attention to. One relatively recent study found that half of academic articles are read by only two people-- the author and the journal editor.

But are the Special Olympics embarrassing, and are the athletes being patronised?

Here's the thing, in my view; nobody is in danger of mistaking the Special Olympics for the "real" Olympics. Everybody knows they are an opportunity for people to compete in sports which, but for this tournament, they wouldn't have at all-- at least, not to the same extent. 

I don't think I have the same commitment to meritocracy and the pursuit of excellence (as an overriding value) as many other people of a conservative bent, and indeed many other people who are so strongly anti-political correctness.

To me, the crucial point is one I've made in some previous posts; I think the tough-mindedness of conservatism has to be balanced by chivalry. And chivalry, to me, is a tenderness and even a reverence towards weakness, towards vulnerability.

On the one hand, I will not be emotionally blackmailed into using particular forms of address or cossetting particular minorities just because somebody claims that members of these minorities are going to harm themselves, suffer attack, or even commit suicide if I don't. I'm scornful of the partisan research which claims these consequences will follow. So no, I'm not going to pretend a man is a woman to gratify somebody else's notion of tolerance.

On the other hand, I am going to be sensitive and tender when it's really called for. People with intellectual disabilities don't get very many moments to be performers. I don't begrudge them this one.

I don't think excellence should be made an idol. There are other important values. Sometimes excellence and "standards" have to be subordinate.

Take the example of cultural nationalism, a subject I've discussed a lot lately. One aspect of cultural nationalism that is quite often criticised, but that actually endears it to me, is that it involves a favouritism towards the homegrown at the expense, very often, at that which is more excellent.

The Gaelic literary tradition is still inaccessible to me, so I can't comment on its value, but I find it very hard to believe it could hold a candle to the English literary tradition. At the crudest level, English literature has a critical mass of readers and writers which simply can't be compared with Irish language literature. And certainly, today, the corpus of Irish writing is many, many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the corpus of English writing.

(IThere are seventy shelves in the main Irish language section of the library where I work. There would be thousands of shelves of English language books and periodicals.)

I find myself reading Irish language material because it's my language and I wish to rediscover it. There is very little printed in Irish which I would wish to read for its own sake. There is a vast amount written in English which I would wish to read for its own sake. (And not just 'literature', either.) Reading Irish language material is a deliberate embrace of a kind of of poverty, a lowering of standards-- out of love.

I think the same is true of folk art, very often. A street ballad cannot boast the same polish or depth as a poem by Tennyson or Milton. In fact, its relative artlessness is part of its charm. Its value lies elsewhere.

Again, I take the same attitude when it comes to 'progress'. It's interesting to me that many anti-progressives are even more keen on progress-- their own notion of progress-- than progressives. The only difference is that, for them, progress doesn't mean political and social engineering-- it means economic growth, technological advancement, increased standard of living, and so forth.

Well, I am rather sceptical of both models of progress. No, I don't want people to live in poverty, or to die for want of basic medical attention. But I don't necessarily see any great liberation in hunter gatherers becoming office workers.

To return to the Special Olympics-- I think many conservatives might oppose such events out of a scepticism towards the idea of "self-esteem", the attitude that "all must have prizes", etc. You should be acclaimed for actual achievements, not simply for trying, or for turning up.

I have to admit a personal dimension here. I have my own experience of very low self-esteem, especially when I was younger. Having completely lacked self-esteem at one point of my life, I realise that self-esteem isn't a matter of telling people they're "perfect as they are" and that they don't even have to try. A lack of self-esteem means you think trying isn't even worth it, since you are doomed to fail anyway. Self-esteem is firm ground under your feet, nothing more. It's very real and not having it is devastating.

Honestly, I don't think we are in any danger of teaching children, or anyone else, that success and achivement are unimportant. We live in a very competitive society, and every child knows it. That's the nature of human existence. Life is hard, and in many ways it's not fair.

Is it so terrible to teach children, and to remind each other, that sucess isn't the be-all and end-all? That there is a value to effort in itself, to striving to overcome our own limits and obstacles? I think so.

One final point. I've noticed very often in life that we need encouragement and "building up" most desperately in the areas and in the moments when we are least likely to receive it. The intellectual might need to be given a boost in the area of social skills. The party animal might need encouragement when it comes to developing a cultural life. The world affirms us most in those parts of our life where we don't really need affirmation so badly, and tends to ignore the aspects of our personalities where we are drowning or starving. I think there is a desperate sadness to this.

I think that, very often, what somebody needs the most is not to be recognised for his or her strengths and achievements, but some kind and encouraging words in the parts of life where he or she lags behind.

There was a British TV situation comedy called The Brittas Empire about a manager of a sports centre who was pompous, by-the-book, frequently oblivious, and yet-- his redeeming feature-- naively idealistic. It wasn't particularly funny or particularly good, but I remember one episode where the manager gives a rousing speech to a petty criminal who has accidentally won some sports competition. (He was the only entrant, and he was simply hanging about to rob the centre.) He tells him that he is now a role model to children in the area, and so on. Of course, the criminal is transformed by this speech; nobody, he tells Brittas at the end of the episode, had ever spoken to him like this before. Corny, but it moved me very much, and it seemed quite realistic. I knew from my own experience how life-changing it can be to be encouraged in the areas where you need encouragement the most, where nobody even thinks to encourage you.

So I don't think there is anything perverse is encouraging intellectually disabled people to pursue atheltics, and in giving such social prestige to their efforts.

I hope nobody suspects me of "virtue signalling" in this post. I hope I have shown, in many other posts, that I am perfectly willing to be politically incorrect where I think it is called for. I don't think I'm any more compassionate than anyone who takes an opposite view on the Special Olmpics. But the subject has been on my mind in the last few days, so I wanted to write on it.


  1. I used to be on the side of your dad regarding how patronising they were and indeed feeling embarrassed for them. Until I did a stint at a place where children with intellectual disabilities visit daily/live. Kids are kids no matter how they roll IQ wise. This was after the Special Olympics here and they were in training for the next set of heats and pushing training times, listening intently to the coaches, having the craic, yelling in support for one another during sessions. They took it seriously, they earned their places and it gave them purpose to their days. I know this is an 'O Ceallaigh buzzword but it was part of their identity now. Such and such was introduced as having been in the Olympics. In their fields they excelled. I'm not about taking part is all that matters Mal but I do think that earning your place through sheer hard work deserves recognition. Being there showed me that those kids really do earn their place and yahboo if their times don't go near Olympians. They excel in their own circles and I admired them for it.


    p.s. I bet they could run for a bus quicker than you and I combined. :-D

    1. Thanks, Sinéad, especially for giving me a buzzword! You're probably right about the bus, though I have a lot of practice...

      I don't think taking part is all that matters, either, but I do think it's important. Success and achievement is also important (who doubts that, even for a second?) but I think taking part, turning up, trying, is even more important myself-- whether you have a disability or not.

      I can't think of any time I felt patronised when someone congratulated or encouraged me on something I'd done, or even an effort I'd made. No, I can actually; I remember, in transition year, we started a "mini-company" which sold scented candles, or somehing. I designed a sign for it and I remember feeling silly that I got a special mention at the little party we had to celebrate when we came to the end of the project, and the fact that we even had a little party. I thought it was so lame.

      Now I've changed my mind about that. I think everything that requires effort and attention is worth taking seriously, and indeed celebrating.


  2. Yes I agree and expressed myself incorrectly, even with the bus comment but bless you, you knew what I meant. Giving it a go does matter, taking part does matter, but not everybody should get a prize. That devalues it all. Those who give it a go and are the best in their own spheres should be rewarded for their achievement. It does not matter how slow they are compared to the original Olympians, among their own they are the best. Yep, celebrate that!


    1. And I do agree that not everybody should get a prize, that this is to devalue outstanding achievement.

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    3. Correcting typos:

      When you think about it, the argument against the Special Olympics pertains to all streamed competition whatsoever. Why have women's soccer, or lightweight boxing, or local competitions in any sport whatsoever? This is the argument Irish fans of English soccer make when they dismiss the League of Ireland as rubbish and only worthy of derision. Presumably, if followed consistently, only the best person in the world at any given activity deserves any recognition, by this logic. Or maybe the best of all time...

      Of course, if you didn't have the lesser competitions, the big competitions wouldn't be nearly as good. This is why I think mediocrity and excellence need each other. If you only had a handful of books or movies released a year, they probably wouldn't be very good.