As Olympic fever spread globally this summer, there were strong ties to the Olympic tradition here in North Carolina.
In this year’s Rio games, there were no fewer than 67 athletes competing in 13 different sports disciplines who had ties to North Carolina.
Some of the U.S. teams were dominated by North Carolina-trained athletes, including the women’s field hockey team, with seven N.C. players, and women’s soccer with 10. There were also 12 swimmers, 17 track and field athletes, two canoe/kayakers, a fencer, a cyclist, a volleyball player, and a triathlete.
In addition to representing our state, some were competing for their home countries. Stan Okoye, who lives in Raleigh, played basketball for Nigeria. Michelle Hoh, who went to school at Campbell University, golfed for Malaysia. UNC Pembroke alum Pardon Ndhlovo ran the marathon for Zimbabwe. Lennox Smith, head track and field coach for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, was assistant head coach for the Jamaican National team.
The Olympic mixing pot even brought rival schools together with Harrison Barnes from UNC and Kyrie Irving from Duke both representing team USA in basketball under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
And North Carolina’s ties to the Olympics run far deeper than that – stretching back for decades.
The first North Carolinian to participate in the Olympics was Harry Williamson from High Point. He ran the 800 meters in the 1936 Berlin games and was later part of a world-record relay in the 4 x 800 meter race. Sugar Ray Leonard, who hails from Rocky Mount and grew up in Wilmington, won the 1976 gold medal for boxing in the light welterweight category and went on to win five world titles. More of our state’s esteemed sports history can be learned at the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
North Carolina’s Olympic spirit and history extends beyond the traditional Games. When the Special Olympics were organized in 1968 for individuals with developmental disabilities, six athletes from North Carolina participated.
Two years later, Special Olympics North Carolina held its first games with 400 participants. It has since grown to become one of the largest Special Olympics programs globally. Today, nearly 40,000 children and adults participate in year-round programs in 19 sports.
Each summer, Special Olympics North Carolina organizes a summer games in which athletes compete in swimming, athletics, bowling, cheerleading, cycling, golf, gymnastics, powerlifting, softball and volleyball.
This year’s Special Olympics Summer Games took place in Raleigh and Cary in early June. As they do each summer, more than 2,500 law enforcement officials ran the Flame of Hope over 2,000 miles across the state to raise funds and awareness for Special Olympics NC before lighting the cauldron to officially open the Games.
The Special Olympics also organizes a fall tournament in November with other sports, including basketball, soccer, tennis, and bocce. There are also regular regional invitationals in a variety of sports, an equestrian tournament, and a winter Olympics with skiing and snowboarding.
Supporting this incredible effort are 100 sub-accredited local programs throughout the state. They mobilize more than 30,000 volunteers who organize nearly 8,000 sports practices and 400 competitive events.
Special Olympics NC has also launched an education and sports-based program called Unified Champion Schools to “build an inclusive environment among youth with and without intellectual disabilities as well as empower them to become youth leaders and speak up for change in their community.”
More than 200 public and private schools in our state are now part of Project UNIFY. They have committed to offer at least one whole school engagement activity (such as school-wide campaigns to raise awareness about disabilities), at least one unified/inclusive sports opportunity, and youth leadership/ advocacy opportunities that encourage students to take leadership roles in the school and community.
The goal of all of these efforts: to foster communities of acceptance where all participants, regardless of their abilities, are supported to reach their full potential.
At the opening ceremonies of all Special Olympics state-level events, the athletes recite an oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
That’s a pretty good mantra for all of us to live by.
About the writers
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.