Syrians show resilience before Games even begin

Tim Shriver joined the athletes from Syria to support them as they marched into the L.A. Coliseum for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games. Mike Stocker for ESPN

Part of the magic of the Special Olympics World Games has always been the barriers athletes overcome to get there -- discrimination, exclusion, medical issues, not to mention their developmental disabilities.

This year, however, a month before the 24-member Syrian delegation walked proudly into the L.A. Coliseum for the opening ceremony on Saturday night -- alongside Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, no less -- they were nearly excluded for a different reason.

According to Syrian swim coach and de facto spokesperson Dana Shubat, her country's athletes and coaches had their visa applications denied by the U.S. State Department in June.

"We were all rejected, but they never told us the reason," Shubat said shortly before the Syrian delegation entered the Coliseum. "I think it was political."

The Syrians reapplied in July, narrowing their numbers and replacing some athletes with others in case it might help, Shubat said. "We did the interview and some of us were accepted, and some were rejected. We still weren't told why."

Earlier this month, State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala declined comment to ESPN.com, citing the Immigration and Nationality Act, while Special Olympics chief marketing officer Kirsten Seckler acknowledged there were some "initial challenges" with Syria's application.

Shriver's gesture, a last-minute decision, delivered a measure of warmth and acceptance that the Syrians felt they were denied leading up to the games.

"I just feel like there is no place on earth suffering more [than Syria]," Shriver told ESPN.com on Sunday. "And they have a great Special Olympics program there. I've been there, I've been to Damascus. They've had Games there many times. I just felt like, you know, I just wanted to ... I mean, two million refugees? It's horrific what the world does to people."

His decision to walk with the delegation Saturday meant more to the Syrians after what transpired in June.

"I was very upset -- not only me but all Syrians, because they know about Special Olympics and they encourage the athletes and cheer them on," badminton coach Adnan Ahmad said through a translator. "But then we were accepted, and I'm just so excited to be in the USA and to be a coach at the World Games."

Syria's Special Olympics movement has grown exponentially in recent years, in spite of the brutal civil war that has killed 220,000 people since 2011. Last year the country staged its first national championships, Shubat said, with a second slated for late August. More than 1,300 Syrian athletes are now active in Special Olympics. Among the 15 athletes (and seven coaches) who made the trip to Los Angeles, three are from Aleppo, one of the cities most devastated by the war. "It is very hard to get athletes from Aleppo," Shubat said. "But they are here."

Virtually every Syrian has lost something to war, Ahmad said. He and three of his athletes have lost family members. Shubat's family's house in a suburb of Damascus, the capital, was destroyed, and the hospital where her father worked was pillaged beyond repair. She and six relatives fled to the city, where they share a two-bedroom apartment.

"You come here and you can't deal as if nothing happened before this," Shubat said. "If nothing happened and I came here, it was going to be another feeling. So it's kind of excitement but also feeling so much bad, because we shouldn't lose anything. Why does the human need to lose anything in life, who works to get things?"

Part of the reason why the State Department's initial rejection stung so badly is because the Syrians already felt they were being excluded by the rest of the world. To wit, Shubat said she finished second in a triathlon at the Pan Arab Games in Egypt, but was denied her silver medal.

"After I finished, they said, 'You don't have results and you're not going to attend the awards ceremony, because you're Syrian and you shouldn't compete,'" she said.

When the Special Olympics World Games -- by any measure, the model of inclusion in global sport -- suddenly seemed out of reach, their faith in the movement was tested.

But it did not wilt.

"The situation in Syria is so much harder and so much different than here," 19-year-old powerlifter Asmaa Nasereddin said Saturday. "But at the same time, this is my family and this is my country."