Busting the Top 4 Myths About Special Olympics New York

Mythbusters might not be on the air anymore, but we’re happy to carry on the legacy. To close out Disability Pride Month, let’s bust some myths about Special Olympics New York.

Why? Because Special Olympics is one of the most misunderstood organizations in the world. People know who we are, yes. They know what we stand for. But many misunderstand what we do and why. So let’s set the record straight.

Myth #1: Special Olympics Happens Once a Year

Special Olympics is probably best known for its big games: our State, National, and World competitions. What many don’t realize, though, is that our athletes train in every season, almost every day of the year (we can’t vouch for holidays, though something tells us our athletes are still working then as well).

The confusion likely arises from an association with the Olympics, which are of course held in Summer and Winter every four years. Special Olympics International does hold Summer and Winter World Games of their own, but those are every two years.

Another source of this myth may very well be our State Games. As the name implies, these are our biggest statewide competitions, with hundreds of athletes and coaches gathering from all nine regions to compete. Yet even then, we have three State Games a year for our Summer, Winter, and Fall seasons (Fall recently returned after a five-year hiatus, and it’s scheduled to be our first in-person State Games in over a year!).

So please remember: Special Olympics New York has competitions happening more days than not. We’re a year-round attraction, not a one-hit wonder.

Myth #2: Everyone Gets a Medal

At Special Olympics, we award three medals: gold for first place in a division, silver for second, and bronze for third. Occasionally we’ll offer ribbons to fourth and lower, but that’s a rarity. And we never, ever give a medal to an athlete who places outside the top three.

That sounds harsh to some. “Shouldn’t all the athletes get a chance to feel good about themselves?” some might say. Or, “They tried hard, so they should get something!”

With all due respect, these people are misunderstanding our mission. We don’t provide recreation. We provide credible competition.

Imagine if the NFL gave Lombardi trophies to all 32 teams (even the lowly Texans). Or what if every golfer at the Masters got a green jacket just for participating? That would completely undermine credibility in their competitions, and therefore the awards would lose all meaning.

The same goes for medals. If an athlete finishes in the top three, they’ll go home with a medal, and since it’s is only earned through success, it means something. It’s a symbol of hard work, dedication, and commitment. Now that’s how you make an athlete feel good.

If you’re worried about athletes who walk away empty handed, please remember that we have an advanced divisioning process. This process, developed by many hardworking and highly qualified people, ensures that athletes of similar abilities compete in the same divisions. This creates an even playing field for all athletes, meaning everyone has a fair shot at a medal.

We could go on and on about this subject, but for now, we’ll leave it at that. We don’t award medals to every athlete!

Myth #3: Athletes Pay to Play

This confusion likely arises from other amateur sports organizations, which often require some sort of buy-in fee. However, in the case of Special Olympics, nothing could be further from the truth. Our athletes and their families never pay to play.

The next logical question is clear: If the athletes don’t pay, then who does?

Well, our athletes play for free thanks to generous donations from people like you. Individual donors are some of our most important supporters, and we welcome their help. We also receive funds from corporate sponsors, online fundraisers, and federal grants.

If you’re interested in learning more, we offer year-round opportunities for New York State communities to give back. Plus, each fundraiser is an amazing experience in and of itself. Here are just a few of our upcoming events:

  • Polar Plunge – Supporters dive into New York’s coldest lakes, rivers, and oceans.
  • Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) – Law enforcement officers carry the Flame of Hope all over the state.
  • Summer Social – It’s a party in NYC! And this year, we’re also selling digital tickets.
  • Tour de Champions – Love bike riding? This event is cycling and fundraising, all in one.

There are so many ways to get involved, and each ensures that our athletes continue to play the sports they love at no cost to them or their families. Follow us on social media or sign up for a monthly newsletter from our CEO to make sure you never miss an opportunity!

Myth #4: It’s Okay to Call the Athletes “Kids” or “Special Olympians”

“There were hundreds of Special Olympians at the event. Those kids looked like they were having so much fun!”

These are the sorts of statements one hears all too often. Though neither is meant as a slight, they’re both problematic in their own ways.

First, “Special Olympics athlete” is the correct term, not “Special Olympian.” Second, the term “kids” is not accurate. Since Special Olympics serves such a wide age range, we do have some athletes of ages most would consider kids. Yet many of our 68,000 athletes statewide are adults. To use “kids” as a blanket statement is to imply that all our athletes, even the adults, are childlike. It’s a term that infantilizes and therefore diminishes our athletes, which is why we mention it here. Please don’t use it!

Want to Learn More?

The best way to bust myths about Special Olympics NY is to see our competitions for yourself. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re not quite at the capacity where we can open every event to spectators. However, once we get there, we encourage everyone reading this article to join us. You’ll be amazed by what you see.

Happy Disability Pride Month!