'Spirit of the Games' is alive and well in New Haven

David Usborne finds the British team still playing the game at the Special Olympics
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The Independent Online
It is day five of the Special Olympics in New Haven, Connecticut, and the tide of words about the unique spirit of the event - the thrill of competing means so much more to these learning-disabled athletes than actually needing to win, and other such, dare one say, patronising sentiments - is flowing faster even than the nearby Atlantic waters of Long Island Sound. "The J-O-Y of Competition", wails the World Games supplement of the New Haven Register.

There is something in it, of course, with more than 7,000 mentally-handicapped young people from 140 different countries gathered here for just over a week. Many have not been in an aeroplane before, let alone taken part in international competition.

We have the story, for instance, of the cyclist from New York who deliberately slowed down in his race so his friend from home could keep up. Of the American, Mark Straugh, who clocked 2min 6sec in the 400 metres, even though cerebal palsy has ravaged his legs and he competes on crutches. And the New York Times has delivered fame to Thomas Murray, a 20-year- old Panamanian basketball player who lost his left leg when he was seven.

In their cramped third-floor dorm in a residential building of the Southern Connecticut University, the members of the British Unified Volleyball side are definitely unimpressed by the losing-doesn't-matter stuff. Slumped on ageing sofas and armchairs, they still cannot get over their loss earlier in the afternoon against Austria. "Sno fair," repeats Derek Paterson, 17, over and over. "Sno fair".

A new and increasingly popular feature of the Special Olympics, Unified Teams are a blend of disabled and non-disabled players. All from Scotland, and mostly from the Strathclyde region, this squad has six mentally disabled members, including Derek, and three who have no disability. They came to Connecticut after training together for a year, one Monday a month in a sports centre in Glasgow. Now they feel cheated, because they think the Austrian team depended too heavily on two of their mainstream players who were recognised as being of national league standard.

"Our players came to compete in a sporting event and to win it," protests Paul Wren, their senior coach. "We're disappointed that the team we played today didn't play in the Special Olympics spirit. That's not what the spirit of the unified teams is supposed to be about." And the match had been tantalisingly close, with the Brits winning the second of the three sets, 15-13, only to be squashed in the final moments of the third.

Still they have some consolation. As we talk, Allan Robertson, 28, springs up and fetches from his bedside a silver medal he won earlier in the week in an individual skills competition. An impressively heavy thing, it sports the games' motto: "Sport. Spirit. Splendor". Allan is one of those who had never even flown before. And everyone gives a cheer to Graeme Lang, a gangly 20-year-old who, amongst everyone here, is the most hesitant about speaking. He came fourth in the same event. Nearly a medal winner, but not quite.

And there has been plenty to cheer about from other events that the 101 British athletes here have competed in. David Duncan, also a Scot, has been getting local newspaper profiles thanks to his table-tennis skills. On Wednesday, he and his partner, Gillian Badams, won the gold in the mixed doubles tournament. At this stage in the games, the overall British medal tally stands at 37, including 16 in powerlifting.

And when twilight comes, even our volleyball side are starting to cheer up. There is word of a clam-bake somewhere in town, so the search is on for transport. Graeme, by far the tallest of everyone at 6ft 4in, is proud in star-and-stripes USA T-shirt and patriotic tartan Bermudas.

And today, at least, they will surely be having fun. Before returning to New Haven for the closing ceremonies, they will be travelling west for an outing in the Big Apple. All admit to one particular thrill at the games: a sighting at the opening festivities of Arnold Schwarzenneger. (Never mind that President Clinton was there, too).

Nor, by the way, is it the end of the road for the team. They have been invited to play in a Speical Olympics tournament in the Czech Republic in the autumn. They hope to go - assuming the financial backing can be found.

n Ramesh Mali, a footballer from Nepal, disappeared while swimming at an unguarded beach area. Police and volunteers manned boats and helicopters in a search for the 21-year-old but without success.