The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Between July 25 and August 2, some 6,500 athletes and 2,000 coaches gathered in the Los Angeles Coliseum before 500,000 spectators and a nationally televised audience for the largest sporting event in the world this year. You could be forgiven if you missed it.

The event was the Special Olympics World Summer Games Los Angeles 2015. The Special Olympics—not to be confused with its better-known cousin, the Paralympics, which focuses on athletes with physical disabilities—are an international sporting competition held every two years, alternating between Summer and Winter Games in non-Olympic years.

Special Olympics events celebrate athletes with intellectual disabilities. Due in part to the stigma of such disabilities, the event has not been as widely known or covered as the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

However, some progress is being made under the leadership of the United States, where this year sports broadcaster ESPN dedicated substantial coverage to the Special Olympics, and understanding appears to be on the upswing.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, the Special Olympics movement has grown to comprise more than 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries.

With upward of 1.4 million coaches and volunteers worldwide in support, the Special Olympics delivers 32 Olympic-type sports and more than 94,000 games and competitions throughout the year. At this year’s world games in Los Angeles, the niece of the founder and US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, was one of the guest VIPs.

Japan was one of 165 countries to take part in this year’s competition, the 14th World Summer Games. The nation’s official delegation of 118 included 77 athletes who competed in 11 events, including badminton, basketball, bowling, golf, soccer, table tennis, track and field, and volleyball. The Japan team competed with determination and earned gold medals for divisions in events including aquatics, tennis, basketball, and track.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) contributed ¥1 million from the Community Service Fund and was recognized as a supporter for the Special Olympics Nippon (SON) this year.

“With this year’s World Summer Games in Los Angeles, and Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we are very pleased to support the Special Olympics Nippon as part of our long-standing commitment to the greater community, diversity in its many forms, and the bilateral ties between the US and Japan,” said ACCJ President Jay Ponazecki.

“We are inspired by the courage and dedication of the athletes and their families and coaches, and by the commitment and enthusiasm of the volunteers. It is wonderful that sport and the spirit of competition have once again proven to be an avenue for greater international understanding and people-to-people ties between our two great countries.”

To cheer on the Japanese participants, several ACCJ leaders attended a send-off event on July 21 at Tokyo Tower. In addition to President Ponazecki, the ACCJ was represented by Executive Director Laura Younger and Vice President Jonathan Kushner, co-chair of the Olympics and Sports Business Committee, as well as President Emeritus Tom Whitson, who is also chairman of the Community Service Committee which supported the donation to SON. ACCJ Governor Tim Brett from CocaCola Japan Co. Ltd. also joined the event as a corporate sponsor.

Under the theme “Reach Up,” the send-off included a video greeting from President Barack Obama, as well as speeches by Minister Hakubun Shimomura of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology; Special Olympics Nippon Chair Yoshiko Mitsui; Head of Delegation and Coach Makoto Owada; and Tim Brett. Guest appearances included that by former Miss Universe Japan Riyo Mori.

Immediately following the send-off, the delegation boarded buses for the airport and set off across the Pacific to Los Angeles. Ryuhei Doi, who competed in the Unified Basketball competition, where intellectually disabled players compete on a team together with athletes who do not have a disability, thereby reducing stigma over such disability, afterwards said he was able to experience important growth by having participated in the LA Games.

“I was really pleased to be able to play in the unified competition together with regular people,” he said.

Yuko Arimori, CEO of SON, said, “I want to applaud everyone for providing an opportunity to communicate through sports.”

Founded under the name Special Olympics Japan in 1980, the organization became Special Olympics Nippon in 1994. The aim is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Through sport, Special Olympics Nippon provides them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community.

The ACCJ is planning an event in the future with SON to share the experiences of those who participated in the World Games with those who want to learn more about the Special Olympics movement. Stay tuned for further information.


By Jonathan Kushner

Vice President, ACCJ