Most Koreans are very eagerly looking forward to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. However, in 2013 the Special Olympics were held in Pyeongchang as well. The athletes participated in various events. Although they are disabled, their challenging spirits were incrediblly exciting. I went to Pyeongchang to investigate the Special Olympics and do volunteer work.
The PyeongChang Special Olympics
The Special Olympics took place over the course of eight days from the 29th of January to the 5th of February 2013. It took place at Pyeongchang (Youngpyeong Resort, Alpensia) and Gangneung (the figure skating stadium). The Special Olympics was first started in Chicago at 1968. This is the tenth Winter Special Olympics. Eleven thousand athletes from one hundred one nations participated in events such as alpine skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, snow shoeing, and figure skating. As you can see, most of the events you watched during the regular Winter Olympics are conducted during the Special Olympics as well. One minor difference is that there is no ice hockey, they play floor hockey instead. The sponsor of these games is the SOI (Special Olympic Incorporated). The chairman of the organizing committee is Na Kyung Won. Kim Yu Na, Hong Myung Bo, Lee Woe Su and Guss Hiddink have also been named honorary ambassadors.
There are two major sporting events for disabled people: the Special Olympics and the Paralympics
Participants gain recognition
Cho Won Sang who participated in cross country and the 4km skiing freestyle won the 200m swimming bronze medal at the London Paralympics. He has great ability in sports.
The sisters Choi Ah Ram and Choi Young Mi participated in this Special Olympics together. They are good at cross country skiing and also in speed skating. Choi Ah Ram started cross country 1 year ago. Nonetheless, she won second place in the national disabled sports games and the triple crown from the pre Special Olympics. Her younger sister Choi Young Mi won two crowns from the national disabled sports games and also won a prize in short track speed skating at the pre games.
Snow boarder Henry Meece was born in Korea and was adopted by an American family. This was his first visit to Korea and he will try to find his birth parents.
The youngest Korean participant was Kim Dae Hyun snowboarder who became the youngest Korean medalist in Special Olympics history.
I wanted to help and to be inspired by the effort of these special athletes. Therefore, I went these Special Olympics and worked in catering and cross country for 6 days.
Hearts flutter at the Special Olympics
I went to Gangneung by bus on the first day of the Special Olympics. As we got closer to Gangwon-do, the landscape turned into wintery splendor. After four hours, I arrived at the Kwandong University gym where volunteer training took place. I found out that I would be working on the food and beverage team. I met my fellow team members, Eun-Ah An(23), and Chen-Xi Wang (24) from China. We went to our accommodation at the Wonju National University dormitory. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the dorms were not heated. I thought the treatment for volunteers was very poor, but I went there to volunteer, not to have fun. After we finished our daily work, our team gathered and talked about why we chose to volunteer. One of the things we talked specifically about was the difficulties of being a Chinese volunteer. After our conversation we went to sleep. However, I could not fall asleep because the room was too cold. Finally, I put on several layers of clothes, poured warm water into a pet bottle and hugged it.
Some uncomfortable moments while volunteering
Today is the first day of the Olympics. Yesterday was the opening ceremony. Former president Lee Myung Bak, Aung San Suukyi, and Kim Yu Na delivered congratulatory addresses. My job was delivering meals to the athletes. I was tired because I was one of only 3 people who had to deliver 600 meals per lunch. However, due to my work, I was able to look at the athletes more closely. They were shorter than average, many of them seemed to not have a fully formed upper lip and their eyes seemed to be in a strange position. I felt awkward when they wanted to shake my hand at first because their hands were dirty and I was surprised by how much they drooled. It was difficult for these athletes to eat, and to live normal lives. However, they took up the challenge of participating in these difficult sports to overcome their difficulties and win a medal. I thought this was really inspirational, and soon I didn't see what made them "different."
Special figure skating
After I finished my work, I went the stadium to watch figure skating. I just expected wonderful skating like Kim Yu Na. However, the Special Olympics was different. One skater often kept still, another did not move at all and yet another fell down more often than not. After the event, the award ceremony was something special. Every participant received a medal. The skater who placed seventh received more applause than the first place finisher. This is one of the truly great things about the Special Olympics. The audience appreciates the effort that was made even more than the other specific accomplishments. In the end, everyone looked happy.
Together we can
I got a chance to change my department. My new department was cross country management. Cross country is like a marathon in the snow. Although that venue was so far away, I was able to help the athletes more closely. I woke up at 6 a.m. and went to the field. The cross country volunteer team leader gave us instructions. First, do not cheer or speak loudly. The reason was that the athletes could become frightened and lose their concentration. This could lead to a stoppage of the event. Second, do not provide assistance without guidance. Unless an athlete is seriously hurt, do not give them assistance. The reason was that falling down is part of overcoming the difficulty of cross country, and there is more accomplishment in overcoming difficulties on their own. The event took place from 11 a.m. - 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. - 4 p.m. It was so difficult for me because I was not prepared to be in the cold for such extended periods of time. I had to keep still and as the skiers went past me, I was spattered with snow and slush. I will especially remember the skier from Alaska. During the event if a skier stand falls down, other competitors usually ignore them. However, the skier from Alaska helped an Australian skier back up after he fell and they continued on together. That moment shined through to me. After the race, I met the Alaskan skier's coach. I told him the story. He seemed very happy. He laughed, and said “I taught her the right way.” After I finished all of my work I rode the bus back home. I was not able to volunteer until the end. It was still rewarding and worthwhile. Through these events, I was able to overcome my prejudice regarding disabled people. They showed me that there are no limits to what can be accomplished if your heart is big enough. They were all tremendous athletes too.
Alaska cross country coach
Q) Why did you start this job?
A) I started 4 years ago. Before, I was a firefighter. Being a firefighter is a very rewarding and valuable profession. But I thought I couldn’t do this job anymore because many of my co-workers died in the line of duty. Coincidentally during this time, I met Kenya who is my student. Fortunately, my major is health, so I decided to be her coach.
Q) What are some hardships faced by the disabled athletes?
A) First, although Kenya is a national competitor, there are no proper training facilities, so we practiced on sand even though cross country is a snow sport. Second, it is also sometimes difficult to communicate and teach her due to her disabilities. But I was not tired. Kenya was really tired. When she started, she couldn’t do cross country at all and now she has become a national competitor. Finally she came here, to the Olympics. I am proud of her. Interview
Gangneung figure skating stadium volunteer
Q) Why did you choose to volunteer here?
A) My friend told me about these Olympics. She wants to be a translator of Chinese and so do I. I researched this event, and I thought it was a very valuable chance. I worried about my Korean ability when I went to interview, but I spoke my mind that I eagerly wanted to volunteer. Luckily, I passed the interview.
Q) How did volunteering make you feel?
A) There is a lot of attention paid to racial discrimination. I think that discrimination against disabled people should get equal attention. Even though the volunteer work was very hard and the facilities were not good, the athletes worked harder than the volunteers. I felt bad about how hard they had to work to get a medal. If I get another chance to volunteer for disabled people, I will absolutely do it again.
Even though many people did not take notice of the PyeongChang Special Olympics, the passion of the participants and organizers is so great. The slogan “Together We Can” was illuminated. Pyeongchang should address their weak points and the 2018 Winter Olympics will be more successful. During my volunteer work, I came to realize that having a handicap is not the end of the world. Dividing people into normal and abnormal categories is just a way to think about difference. From now on, to overcome prejudice regarding disabled people, more events should be organized to celebrate what they can do, and not what they cannot do.
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