Calgary has a proud legacy as an Olympic host city and will be building on that legacy when it welcomes the 2024 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games at the end of February. Over five days, teams of athletes from across the country will compete in eight different events in the spirit of true sportsmanship that is the cornerstone of the Games. To celebrate our return to being a winter Olympic city, here’s a primer on how the Special Olympics were founded and what to expect at the 2024 Canada Winter Games in Calgary, plus some of the local athletes who will be representing on home turf.
1. The games were inspired by research done in Canada
The Special Olympics were founded in the United States, though there was a strong Canadian contribution from the start. In the 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, an American philanthropist and sister to former president John F. Kennedy, started a summer day camp for youth living with intellectual disabilities to realize their athletic potential. Around the same time, Frank Hayden, a sports scientist with the University of Toronto, was working with students from Beverley School, a public elementary school for youth with developmental disabilities, to study the effects of regular exercise for children with an intellectual disability. Hayden’s discoveries concluded that, with the right opportunity, those with intellectual disabilities can thrive in sports.
Informed by Hayden’s research, and with a proposal for a national sporting competition, Shriver kicked off the inaugural Special Olympics World Summer Games in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
In 1977, the first World Winter Games were held in Steamboat Springs, Colo. In 1997, Toronto was the first Canadian city to host the Special Olympics World Winter Games. More than 2,000 athletes competed in the five main sports at the time: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, floor hockey, short track speed skating and snowshoeing.
Special Olympics Alberta hosted the first National Summer Games in Calgary in 1986, and the first National Winter Games a decade later in 1996.
2. The 2024 games were planned in less time than usual
The COVID-19 pandemic created unique challenges for the organizers of the 2024 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games. The last Winter Games were held in Thunder Bay in February, 2020, right before the world locked down, and the organizers of Calgary’s Games needed to accommodate a post-pandemic environment in a significantly shorter window.
Karen Dommett, general manager of Special Olympics Canada Winter Games Calgary 2024, had just 14 months between winning the bid and the kick off date, when typically host organizations (along with the provincial sporting chapters and the athletes themselves) have at least three years to prepare. But displaying can-do spirit, the Calgary Games went ahead.
“We’re so fortunate in Calgary with the support from the corporate community, from our sponsors, to all of our venues and hotels, that we’ve been able to react and respond quickly,” Dommett says. This positive response has inspired the Special Olympics community to do what they can to host the best National Games yet, even in a reduced time period.
3. The economic impact will be more than $10 million
The Winter Games will bring athletes, support staff and fans from across the country to Calgary. More than 4,000 visitors are anticipated. As such, the Games are expected to give the city a huge boost, says Carson Ackroyd, senior vice-president of sales at Tourism Calgary. The expected economic impact of the Games is $10.7 million, accounting for the competitive events, plus transportation, hotels, food and beverages, and retail spending. The benefits are expected to extend beyond economics, as well.
“With an event like this, you’re not only going to engage and raise awareness of the Special Olympics in Calgary, [but] we intend and expect that there will be a spike in volunteers for Special Olympics Calgary that will support their sustainability in the long run,” Ackroyd says. “You end up seeing very strong social impacts from these events, in addition to the economic impact.”
4. The next step is the 2025 world games in Turin, Italy
The Winter Games will showcase eight sports: five-pin bowling, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, floor hockey, snowshoeing and speedskating. For athletes to compete in the Canada Games, they must qualify in Provincial/Territorial Games held by the 12 Provincial/Territorial Special Olympics chapters. The athletes who have qualified for the Calgary Games will compete not just for medals, but for the opportunity to represent Team Canada at the 2025 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
Both the Winter and Summer Games use the same qualification system — a four-year competition cycle that starts with district qualifiers for Provincial Games in Year 1; Provincial Games in Year 2 and National Games in Year 3, culminating in the World Games in Year 4.
Retired Canadian speedskater and double Olympic gold-medallist Catriona Le May Doan is the current president and CEO of Sport Calgary and a former board member of Special Olympics Canada. “Half of my Facebook friends are Special Olympics athletes,” Le May Doan says. “They have this way of humbling me and humbling themselves. The spirit for sports they have is hard to match.”
5. Awards are given out to coaches and support teams
Special Olympics recognizes the achievements of all participants, including coaches and support teams. Each year, two athletes, two coaches and one team are honoured not just for their competitive achievements, but for their true embodiment of the Special Olympics’ spirit of inclusion and accommodation.
The Frank Selke Jr. Fundraising Volunteer of the Year Award honours the efforts and contributions of a volunteer directly involved with making the Games a lifetime success. The Rob Plunkett Law Enforcement Torch Run Award, named after the late Detective Constable Robert Plunkett of the York Regional Police, honours a law-enforcement official who has given their time and efforts to the Special Olympics cause. The recipient of the Dr. Frank Hayden Athlete Lifetime Achievement Award exemplifies the same determination, goals and care for the Special Olympics as Hayden showed through his contributions to making them a success.
6. The games require more than 1,200 volunteers
Putting on a national-level competition like the Special Olympics requires a significant volunteer contribution. The minimum number of volunteers needed to make the Calgary Games a success is 1,200, but Dommett’s goal for the number of registered volunteers is about 1,500. This accounts for medical volunteers, food services, transportation, signage, installations, deliveries and scoring teams, among other types of volunteers. “Every [volunteer] role and contribution to these Games goes to creating an experience of a lifetime for these athletes,” Dommett says.
Volunteering is not the only way to get involved; the Games also accepts financial donations (Special Olympics Canada can issue a tax receipt, if applicable). There is also official Special Olympics Calgary 2024 Winter Games merchandise available for purchase (shop online at calgary2024.specialolympics.ca), items such as joggers, jackets, water bottles and a stainless steel tumbler ideal for keeping beverages hot at an outdoor event such as snowshoeing.
7. The 2024 games kick off with a torch run
The Law Enforcement Torch Run is a longstanding tradition where law-enforcement professionals participate with the athletes in carrying the torch to the opening ceremonies venue to begin the Games. On Feb. 27, Runners from across the provinces and territories will meet at Olympic Plaza for the final leg and run the torch from there to the opening ceremony at Stampede Park.
Competition venues include The Bowling Depot for five-pin bowling (closed, invite-only event); WinSport for alpine skiing; Confederation Park Golf Course for cross-country skiing; North Hill Curling Club for curling; the Tsuut’ina 7 Chiefs Sportsplex facility for figure skating and floor hockey; Maple Ridge Golf Course for snowshoeing; and the Olympic Oval at University of Calgary for speedskating.
8. There will be a sensory-friendly area at the closing ceremonies
In the spirit of inclusion and respect, the Special Olympics team and Tourism Calgary have considered various ways to accommodate the neurodiverse athletes, coaches and other visitors. The Calgary Airport Authority has come on board to ensure participants and support staff will be welcomed in a calm, quiet manner. The closing ceremonies, traditionally a time when the athletes unwind and celebrate together, will include a sensory-friendly area with accommodating festivities for neurodiverse participants.
Both Special Olympics organizers and Tourism Calgary are committed to making the Games safe and inclusive. “We work with all the teams to see what accommodations we can make for any of the athletes to be sure they have the best experience possible,” Ackroyd says.
Special Olympics Canada Winter Games Calgary 2024 runs Feb. 27 to March 2, calgary2024.specialolympics.ca