LOS ANGELES -- Now what?
With the conclusion of the Special Olympics World Games here Sunday, that question lingers. Not just among the 165 countries that sent athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete. Not just within the global organization itself. But also in households around the world, in villages where the disabled population is uncounted and, most saliently, in the minds of the athletes themselves.
In two years there will be another World Games, this time on snow and ice and in Austria. There is momentum to sustain from L.A. There are sponsors to court, funds to raise, ongoing competitions to stage for the nearly 5 million athletes who take part in Special Olympics around the world -- the overwhelming majority of whom did not attend the 2015 Games.
"We labor under the misconception that we are like the other Olympics, which is that there are Olympic Games and then they're over," Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver said Sunday. "Ours don't end."
Still, the irony of an event like the World Games -- and, really, any top-of-the-world experience -- is that it creates a high that is impossible to maintain. As the event wound down late in the week, that reality began to set in for those who were not returning to the same amenities they enjoyed here, namely equality, protection and acceptance.
"This is a question that we face every time," said Mahfooz Elahi, head of the Pakistani delegation that brought 55 athletes to L.A., many from lower-class backgrounds. "I ask myself over and over again, 'What are we doing?' We spend so much money on these athletes to get them here -- $3,000 just for airfare, which is double what their family makes in a full year. Why not just give them that money?
"They've never traveled outside their village and we bring them 15,000 kilometers away to World Games," Elahi added. "The issue remains: Once we get back, what happens?"
Not what happens right away, mind you. Elahi, who has attended six World Games, spent last week fielding calls from the president's and prime minister's offices asking when they might host the athletes upon their return to Pakistan. In a country that prides itself on sports performance but has fallen on hard times recently, news of the Pakistanis' medals in L.A. resonated daily, as it did in other nations that fared well. Their first two weeks at home will feature more of the same: feting, celebration, inclusion.
Then it gets murkier. Elahi said the primary mission upon their return will be to arrange jobs for the athletes, who were drawn from cities around the country, two or three from each locale. Elahi, who owns a textile manufacturing business, said he has 16 Special Olympics athletes already working for him and will call friends and business associates to try to place Pakistan's World Games competitors with reliable employers (a law requires that 2 percent of each company's workforce be filled by people with disabilities).
"Just to get them going in life, help them reach a point where they can sustain themselves," Elahi said. "Not just take them up to the pedestal and drop them back down on the floor. Because we know the shock will be even greater this time around. It's a very scary thought."
But also one that remains worth the opportunity cost, both to Elahi as well as other delegations that face similar questions. "As a volunteer for Special Olympics, this is our mission," he said. "We are giving them the opportunity to see the world. But we also must try to push further afterward."
Special Olympics International (SOI) encourages each country to draft a "legacy plan" for after the World Games, to promote continued sponsorship and to leverage the momentum from their experience here, in terms of new athlete recruitment and coach training, said Aase Torheim, senior director of sports training and competitions for SOI. For most countries, that effort begins with public appearances over the next couple of weeks -- parades and news conferences, some of which are televised -- and continues with similar outreach later this year.
"We have an expression in our organization that the Games drive the movement, so we try to train people how to use games as catalytic, door-opening experiences," Shriver said.
To that end, SOI asks its leadership teams in regions like Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe whom they need to reach in order to maximize the World Games' impact. Then they invite those people to attend, albeit on their own dime. This year, Shriver said, more than 30 ministers of sport traveled to L.A. to watch the Games in person for the first time.
"We go after these people with a specific hope that they'll come here and become sort of converts if you will -- believers -- then go home and use that leverage," Shriver said. "And that does work. Not anywhere near as fast as we'd like, but it does work. The reason we have such a successful movement in India now is because the Indian leaders came to our games in China eight years ago, and they were blown away. They went back and it was wide-open. We got millions and millions of dollars annually from the government to expand state by state -- and a state in India is 200 million people. So we recruited a half-million new athletes in a few years."
Of course, the World Games foster their own legacy as well. Clarice Cotton, the longtime Special Olympics director in the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, said she comes "to see what we have to aspire to." That sentiment rang especially true this year for the U.S., which featured the largest team in L.A. with 349 athletes (and 1,700 friends and family members). Chris Hahn, who has attended 20 of 21 World Games since 1975 and led the American delegation, said he worries U.S. athletes have fallen behind their European counterparts because of inferior technical training. Last week's competitions served as a call to action for the U.S. to improve its coaching, he said.
"There was a day many years ago when we always said [the athletes'] challenge was getting to the starting line," Hahn said. "Well, we've gone way past that. They're at the starting line, and now they want to improve their abilities and we've got to step up to that challenge that our athletes are throwing back at us. If we want to keep moving forward as a sports organization, we need to get better at teaching skills like dribbling or fielding a ball or handing off a baton."
Special Olympics officials do not publicize a medal count, but many countries do. For some, it is a point of pride; for others, it could help attract funding and athletes. Edward Gessel of Suriname said his nation's Special Olympics program serves only 240 people, or less than 2 percent of the estimated 12,000 potential participants. Gessel took out a mortgage on his home to bring 24 athletes to L.A., and his coaches paid some of their own way. When he gets home, he intends to leverage Suriname's medals to recoup some of that cost from the government and corporate sponsors, and also to further the movement.
"Our goal is to reach everybody, and these 24 athletes are going to be the messengers," Gessel said. "What we normally do is send coaches out to promote our program by speaking at schools and institutions. But now we can team up the coaches with somebody with medals, somebody with a story to tell. Because the coach can only say so much, but if [potential participants] see somebody like themselves with a medal, they think, If he can do it I can do it.."
How powerful and lasting is the World Games experience? Consider the tale of Libyan powerlifter Ammar Shatshat. Before he won four medals in the 120kg division last week, Shatshat, along with six other members of Libya's delegation, drove 250 kilometers from his home in Benghazi, one of the hot spots in the Libyan civil war, to a safer airport. They flew to Tripoli and boarded a cramped bus with the rest of their team for a 14-hour, overnight drive through volatile areas to Tunisia, where they picked up their visas since the U.S. no longer staffs an embassy in Libya. Then they drove back to Tripoli and began a four-day journey to L.A. via Istanbul.
Saturday night, after Shatshat won his final medal, he was asked through an interpreter if he feared returning home to Benghazi. He shook his head.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "It is all because of my achievement here. This is the best experience I've had in my life."