Moses Lubega Alsayyed
In August 2015 a mammoth crowd at the University of California paused! The reason was a Ugandan. Not that he was wearing a suicide vest and about to commit a mass crime. A young swimmer at the Special Olympics that year at full throttle was threatening to rescript the world 50m Freestyle record. Observers were punching on their phones, Fans stood open mouthed, Ugandan officials high fiving (‘ A medal is coming home’)
Then, the unforeseen struck! The Ugandan swimmer on the final stretch, in clear sight of victory, hit the brakes midway in the pool , turned to the side of the crowd full throated, chanting his name, and began to blow flying kisses in their direction and dancing alike a happy ‘dolphin’. Meanwhile the probing swimmer who before the ‘ affectionate act ’ was body length behind, now had his full torso ahead , gently proceeding to touch the wall to deny the Ugandan a ‘well earned missed’ gold.
Unlike conventional crowds, Special Olympics fields are forgiving; there was no yelling, no booing but pity for his coach Kiggundu Sam who walked to the pool, and without any flinch of anger, reached his swimmers hand to pull out his still cheerful ( none had a clue why athlete still thrilled despite narrow loss ) swimmer from the pool and welcomed him back to the group with a friendly tap. It is that well-disposed industry exhibited by Uganda Special Olympic officials that turns dozen ‘rough diamonds’ into medal prospects.
The ‘unscripted’ athlete was a victim of ‘Down syndrome’ a category of profound Intellectual disability in special Olympics difficult to manage says Charlotte Murungi a medical practitioner who travelled with the Ugandan team to the ongoing biennial games in Abu Dhabi.
Ugandan coaches’ charm has proven the embroidery to the the ill tamed (lack of school programs) athletes competing against peers from highly enriched grass root programs.
No wonder participating officials have nicknamed Ugandan colleagues; ‘The Blacksmith’ for their craftwork in curving individual flaws into opportunities albeit at late discovery.
As I interacted with coach Ndugwa Lawrence who watched the Los Angeles fiasco unfold said’ when he returned to camp we showered the swimmer with more love than condemnation to bring out the best element of himself” He was right, a year later the swimmer won Uganda a medal in Austria in winter games. Companionship has been the midas touch for Ugandan coaches here.
The swimmer had opened up to one of the coaches days later” I thought Michelle Obama was watching in the stands” The then US first lady had days earlier officiated at the opening ceremony , but was on the eventful day missing! From the stands. ‘so who had he seen’ the coach quietly wondered!
Down syndrome is common with intellectual impairment. Athletes categorized under syndromatic, humanize intellectual delays, and manifest learning disability. Uganda special Olympics has tightened its identification and categorization tools sowed with a close school interface system were special Olympics assigned psychologists visit institutions and ‘professionally interrogate’ the behavior of target athletes in schools intended to establish rightful disability placement.
Among the 33 Ugandan athletes during this year’s games in Abu Dhabi, a two thirds majority personify mild intellectual disability (ID). The minimal share remaining is of ; Cases of profound ID ( IQ square of 19 or below) and syndromatic type (IQ under 70) that stir deficits in adaptive behavior affecting every day, general living’
The Los Angeles fiasco was unfortunate but not unprecedented for athletes classified under syndromatic. A good marksman like the Ugandan rinsed the setback into an opportunity.
Was the act unsportsmanlike? Not at all!
In the truest sense, the solemn oath taken during Olympic games since 1906 for ‘able’ athletes to adhere to games rules would be excused under these circumstances. Ugandan Officials here perhaps perform the ‘unspoken’ solemn vow’ with individual athletes to always be there for the other. It is evident the homage is still virgin and will take time to be adulterated.
Ndugwa Lawrence, football coach says with special Olympics followed his leaning; ‘I take pride in turning ‘average’ individuals into a fine piece’ he says. Players like KCCA FC’s Lawrence Bukenya was polished with his special needs brush into a sublime topflight star, and a dozen counting in other disciplines.
The once ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ here are the jewels in the UAE desert, the country awaits to welcome upon return. The craftsmen the officials do not mind taking the back seat and tap athletes on the back upon return from the podium.