THE BLOG

Let the Games Begin...

30/08/2013 17:34 BST | Updated 30/10/2013 09:12 GMT

Wednesday evening was the official opening ceremony to the Special Olympics National GB Summer Games Bath 2013. It was the most beautiful balmy summer's evening and just sitting on a picnic rug, with close friends and family in front of the architecturally magnificent Royal Crescent, would have been a treat in it's own right. It was so much more than that though.

Welcoming 1,700 athletes, from 12 different sports disciplines, into our beautiful city of Bath and seeing the Flame of Hope arrive to mark the start of the Games was really something more than just 'special'.

The kids lapped up the atmosphere and enjoyed dancing to the bands, running free and doing handstands on the grass.

My husband's cousin Jason, Olympic gold medalist and an ambassador to the Games, gave motivational advice to the athletes.

We saw the awesome Urban Parkour doing their thing, set to the backdrop of the Royal Crescent rather than their more usual urban Bristol streets.

The rather dashing and ridiculously tall, Colin Salmon, Bond actor, ex Strictly contestant and ambassador to the Games, gave a rather moving speech in which he retold the day his mother, a nurse, had said to him 'until our society accepts people with learning disabilities, this is no society'.

A radiant Susan Boyle sang her very apt signature "I dreamed a dream", her voice powerful, confident and beautiful. A pioneer herself, challenging the judges on Britain's Got Talent not to 'judge' on quirky or unconventional appearances, but to scratch beneath the surface and realise the potential within.

A coach from Scotland spotted my son, Seb, busting some Street Dance moves to the live music that was blaring out. He came over and introduced himself and proudly told of his brother, a competitor in his 40's. He then removed his gold Special Olympics badge and gave it to Seb. It was a precious moment and a heartfelt gesture that will be treasured forever.

I felt hugely proud and emotional throughout the entire ceremony - for the athletes at the start of this fabulous competition, their hard work and determination about to come to fruition. Proud of the beautiful city I am lucky enough to call home, of the volunteers, the parents and family supporters, the Special Olympics as an organisation and all those who work tirelessly for the cause, of the ambassadors and organisers, the councillors and the coaches, and of my own family playing happily together on the lawn.

It was an evening of untold optimism and positivity, a real boost to all.

Last year the London Paralympics gripped the nation. The response and support of the Games was incredible, it seemed at last individuals were being celebrated for ability not disability, their personalities and achievements at the fore. It made pages and pages of column inches and was covered on Channel 4 by highly regarded sports commentators. It was 'cool'.

The massively popular Games made household names of athletes like Ellie Simmonds. Lucrative sponsorship deals were struck and paralympians were fronting high profile ad campaigns. I have no doubt that the wave of public backing and interest in the Paralympics was one of the main reasons that, after years of campaigning, a retailer, M&S, finally listened and used my son, who has Down's syndrome, in their biggest ad campaign of the year.

So 2012 seemed like an incredible year for progress and awareness. Yet just one year on, according to a survey by the disability charity Scope, 81 percent of disabled people in Britain say attitudes towards them have failed to improve. The argument being that not every person with a disability can be an elite athlete.

Add to this the fact that learning disability, rather than physical disability, is the last taboo and you realise how far we still have to go. Learning disability (unnecessarily) makes people uncomfortable. It is not 'cool'. It's awkward.

There is virtually no media coverage of the Special Olympics, aside from local news. I wager most people, unless directly connected, do not know it even exists. The media doesn't understand it. They can't comprehend how a competitive sports programme is not about winning or medals tables.

It began in the late 1950's when John F Kennedy's sister, Eunice, noticed how unfairly people with learning disabilities were treated and were excluded from 'mainstream' play areas. She started a summer day camp and the aim was to focus on ability, not disability. Incredible to think of it's humble beginnings.

The Special Olympics is now a global movement. It is about self-esteem, empowerment and inclusion. It is about a community where everyone is accepted, it is about ability not disability. It is ageless. It is about every day living, a reason to be and a celebration of achievement. It offered me hope at a time of desperation and 'difference' just days after being told my son had Down's syndrome. t's an overblown cliché, but it really is about the taking part.

It is incredible.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN! Good luck to all those taking part.