Game on!

There is nothing like the Olympics to bring out the best in people.

For competitors striving to live up to its motto - ''faster, higher, stronger'' - the event offers the opportunity to compete at the highest level, to test themselves against others at the top of their game, to see whether their training and preparation has paid off, how well they cope with stress and pressure, to see whether they can set personal bests or break records, to perhaps attain a precious medal that is the permanent reminder of their achievements, and a place on the winners' podium.

Being part of an Olympic village set-up allows athletes to access top-level services and to mingle with like-minded people and form lasting friendships off/out of the field/track/pool/ring/arena.

For spectators, there is the excitement of being part of a huge event, contributing to the roar of the crowd, soaking up the atmosphere, watching competitive athletes, and supporting their person or team to achieve glory.

And for Special Olympics competitors, like the 1200 competing in Dunedin this week, and their supporters, it is no different.

The emphasis of the three-day event for athletes with intellectual disabilities may be more on fun, meaning fewer tears, but the triumphs are no less momentous - particularly considering the hurdles many have overcome just to be here.

Many people with intellectual disabilities face significant health and fitness issues.

To compete in the four-yearly Special Olympics New Zealand 2013 National Summer Games (or its Winter Games counterpart - the two are held on an alternating two-year schedule), competitors must first have progressed through ribbon days and regional games, a raft of which are held throughout the country each year.

There is the opportunity for athletes to progress further, through Trans Tasman Games Asia Pacific Games and the ultimate Special Olympics World Games held every four years.

The Special Olympics' year-round programme of sports training and competition is impressive, as is its ethos of building the programmes so ''every person with a learning disability has the opportunity, in their local community, to participate in high-quality sport and development activities that bring life-changing experiences of increased skills, self-confidence and joy''.

Equally impressive is the practice, commitment and dedication shown by the athletes - and their families, supporters, sponsors, schools, clubs, coaches, sports co-ordinators and officials, health clinicians and volunteers.

Most teams have also had to undertake significant fundraising in order to attend the games.

The competitors' desire to test themselves, push themselves and achieve success is evident.

Involvement in sport not only gives them a focus, but provides obvious health and fitness benefits, too.

Equally as important is the social aspect of the games, particularly for those who can be marginalised and isolated.

''One big happy family'' is how an athletics coach and mother of one competitor describes the set-up.

There are serious aspects to the games, too. A significant tool on offer for competitors is the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes initiative.

Through this, competitors are provided with basic health screenings and services from qualified medical staff.

The initiative recognises that people with intellectual disabilities have greater healthcare needs, and may not realise when they are unwell or take appropriate action.

Dunedin is hosting the Summer Games for the first time and events are taking place throughout the city, with the closing ceremony tomorrow night.

The event is another chance for us to roll out the welcome mat to athletes - many of whom are experiencing their first out-of-town event - and prove our organisational and hosting abilities.

Mention must be made of the hundreds of volunteers, without whom such an event would not be possible.

It is to be hoped the athletes all get their day in the sun, and leave with new skills, self-confidence and pride in their achievements, and having made new friends and memories to cherish.

 

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