Team spirit on display in its purest form: Taking part is what counts at the National Special Olympics. Adrian Holloway reports

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The Independent Online
THIS is it. That elusive sporting purity which is free from the spectre of money, drugs and winning at all costs was paraded for all to see at the fourth National Special Olympics at Sheffield yesterday. Here, at least, the Corinthian spirit is alive and well.

When they say it is the taking part that counts, they mean it. The 1,700 competitors with learning difficulties, who have assembled in Sheffield to use the facilities built for the 1990 World Student Games, are clearly having the time of their lives, none more so than the netball players, the most demonstrably enthusiastic of the lot.

Only three teams took part in the round-robin tournament which ended yesterday, but the low turnout, while disappointing the netball organisers, only serves to illustrate the challenges involved.

Most of the participants in the Games, which began on Friday and end tomorrow, are swimmers, athletes or gymnasts. Team sports present greater problems for those with learning difficulties, and of these, netball is the most demanding.

'You cannot rely on a couple of good players,' Betty Galsworthy, the national technical officer for the All England Netball Association explained, 'because movement around the court is restricted. This is why netball is so advantageous for those with learning difficulties. They have to pass the ball up the court as a team.'

Jean Perkins, the driving force behind the sport and coach of the bronze medallists, East Midlands, adds to the picture. She says: 'We cannot assume anything when a player first takes up the sport. We have to say 'hands ready' when we throw the ball to them and then explain that if one colleague is marked, the ball can still be passed elsewhere.'

Fife were moving the ball at some pace yesterday at the Graves Leisure Centre, south of the city centre, as their 29-year-old captain, Pamela Mitchell, led them to the gold medal position.

Mitchell has already won four gold medals in lawn bowls, but she chose to compete in netball at Sheffield. 'It's more fun being in a team,' she says, 'and you make more friends.'

Mitchell is a product of the growth of netball in day centres in Scotland. There are no teams in the South Yorkshire area, but Theresa Burns, the Strathclyde head coach, can choose from 35 local players.

'We don't select the best,' she says, 'we pick those who haven't been away on a trip like this before, provided they've been attending training regularly.'

There is no mainstream netball league in Strathclyde, but those with learning difficulties have far more opportunities north of the border.

'It hasn't been promoted through the All England Netball Association,' Perkins said, 'and it's costing us pounds 380 per player to be here for the week, so we need more help from above.'

The expenses incurred by the East Midlands team do not include any payment to the carers, all of whom offer their services free. More than 2,000 such helpers have been on hand at the Special Olympics, with hundreds more applicants turned away.

Carers stood around the court side yesterday, advising the players on the perils of the offside law. Other rules were changed to allow a player to shuffle her feet while gaining her balance, and another gave everyone five seconds rather than the normal three to pass or shoot after receiving the ball.

Britain lags behind the USA in providing sporting opportunities for these special people, but in netball at least, the authorities were promising yesterday to catch up fast before the Connecticut World Special Olympics in two years' time.

(Photograph omitted)

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