I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I volunteer at the local Disability Center once a week. Every Thursday afternoon I hang out with the kids in the younger class. Usually this just involves playing with the toys and having a blast. Sometimes we sing and dance. The kids are great and they always brighten my day. I had the amazing opportunity to accompany some of the kids from the Center to the Second Regional Western Special Olympics recently.
Special Olympics has only recently come to Mongolia. There have been national competitions since 2013, but the Regional Western Special Olympics were only established last year. Peace Corps divides the country up into regions a little differently than the Mongolian government so last year our aimag wasn’t included in the Olympics, but we were invited this year. I traveled to Govi Altai with eight athletes, four parents, two teachers, and my site mate Mary to participate and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Mongolia so far.
Let’s meet the team.
In preparation, we had practices for two weeks before the games. Every afternoon the athletes and their parents would gather in the gym of a local primary school. We would warm up and then practice the four sports they would be competing in: basketball, table tennis, track and field, and gymnastics. This was my first time really interacting with the older kids from the Center and it was incredible getting to know them. What was really cool to watch was how they opened up over the span of the practices and supported each other. The older kids took turns coaching the younger ones on how to shoot a basketball or hold the table tennis paddle.
The only downside to this experience was the travel. We fit 18 of us into one purgon. By Mongolian standards this is absolutely fine, but there were still more people than seats. The road between Bayankhongor and Altai is not paved for the most part. What I was told would take six to eight hours, ended up taking us ten. So you can imagine my frustration when I learned the group from Ovorkhangai arrived in eleven hours. For your reference, the distance between Arvaikheer (the aimag center of Ovorkhangai) and Bayankhongor takes about four hours to cover.
After a full day of travel, we finally arrived around 7:00 pm and got everyone settled into their accommodations. In Altai the athletes, parents, teachers and M27 volunteers stayed in the medical school dorms.
During the first day the athletes practiced at the sports center, were divided by skill and age, and attended a health seminar. We set up stations for each of the sports and the teams rotated through making sure each of their athletes got a chance to get in some practice before the big day. In the afternoon we held trials for track and field and table tennis. The athletes were then grouped by their skill and age for the competitions on the second day.
The health seminar took place at the health center just down the road. In one room there were eight or so stations set up with doctors and medical students at each. They covered healthy eating, proper hand washing and teeth brushing practices, sun protection, bone density, heart health, and human rights.
The second day was all about the competitions. In the morning there was a brief opening ceremony. All the teams filed into the gym behind signs that announced which aimags they were from. There were seven aimags represented in total: Ovorkhangai, Bayankhongor, Govi Altai, Khovd, Bayan Olgii, Zabkhan, and Uvs. In total there were a little over 150 participants including athletes, parents, teachers, and Peace Corps Volunteers.
The basketball games lasted 10 minutes with five minute halves. I don’t think our team scored a single basket all day, but I was really proud of them for not being too disheartened about it and showing a lot of improvement over the period of a single day. After seeing how the other teams were warming up and playing on the court, I have some ideas about what skills to focus more on next year.
The table tennis tournament was taking place simultaneously at one end of the big gym. The athletes played two or three games of 10 points.
In the afternoon, the focus turned entirely to running. We used the entire length of the gym for the 50 meter races and had the students run the length twice for the 100 meters.
- Seeing the athletes perform with the biggest smiles on their faces: I was watching a table tennis match in which an athlete from Khovd was competing when the PCV from his aimag told me that he is usually extremely shy and nervous around large groups of people and that the only time she has seen him smile is when he is playing table tennis. There was also a 100 m running competition between only two girls who ran the whole length of it with the brightest smiles on their faces.
- The athlete from Ovorkhangai who did everything like it was a victory lap, waving his hands over his head, flashing victory signs, and cheering for himself as he competed in the 50 meter running competition
- The athletes meeting and making friends with kids from other aimags who had similar disabilities
- The athletes helping each other out whether it was with their form or simply giving each other high fives regardless of how they performed
- Naranbadrakh from our team charmed all of the volunteers with his friendliness and formalities. He insisted on asking everyone’s names and shaking their hands every morning.
- Erdenetuya’s ribbon dance brought several volunteers to tears.
- The spontaneous dance party that broke out on the first day: it was really cool to see how the athletes from our team danced. Many of them were at about my skill level (which isn’t great), but there was one who had the sassiest of hip shakes, and another who went into some sort of robotic vogueing.
- Watching our four oldest athletes in the back of the purgon: they get along so well so they spent the ride talking and laughing and sleeping on each other.
- One of the teachers that came with the team has a young daughter with Down Syndrome. She was so happy to see that there were athletes from other aimags with Down Syndrome competing in the games. The first time she saw one of them she turned to me and said, ‘She looks just like my daughter,’ with the biggest smile on her face and told me on multiple occasions that sometime in the next few years her daughter would be participating in the Olympics too.
- High fives: Mary and I overloaded the kids with high fives throughout practices and the games and it was so awesome when they started asking for them. Even the parents picked up on this and asked us for high fives. It was great that our team developed such an attitude of support, especially when the athletes didn’t perform as well as they wanted to.
- Seeing the parents from all the aimags being so supportive of their children and stepping up to support the children whose parents weren’t able to travel with them: after one of the races, an athlete that we nicknamed Mr. Muscles, was extremely upset that he came in second place. His father wasted no time in wrapping him up in a bear hug and calming him down. Later at the closing banquet he was so thankful for his silver medal.
- During the closing banquet Bazkaa was very sad that she hadn’t received a medal and started crying. I could tell from a table away that she was trying really hard to keep back the tears, but was still really upset about it. As my heart broke for her, the other children on the team stepped up to comfort her, several of them physically wiping away her tears. Several minutes later she was up and dancing by herself in between tables to the singer who was performing.
- The volunteers also received participation medals (because this is Mongolia, the only country I’ve ever seen more obsessed with certificates and awards than America) and while we were up at the front of the restaurant posing as a group for pictures a few kids ran up from their tables to shake our hands and offer us their congratulations.
We closed out the two day spectacular with an awards banquet. The athletes received medals and certificates for their performances and participation and were treated to a nice meal. There were performances by local musicians and a little dancing as well. The next morning we boarded our purgon again for the ride back. As luck would have it this ride was even worse. The drive was fourteen hours total with a flat tire after dark in the middle of nowhere to add a little excitement.
Despite the nightmares with travel, this whole experience was such a positive one. Disabilities, especially cognitive disabilities, still carry a lot of stigma in Mongolia, something I’d like to write about in a future post. This event brought together athletes, parents, and teachers from seven different aimags. Some of them may not have ever met others with the same disability before. They were able to share information, experiences, and a great time. I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to be involved and can’t wait for the Third Western Regional Special Olympics in Zavkhan next year.