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About Special Olympics Competitions, Results & Schedules

The heart of Special Olympics is competitions, the races, matches, tournaments and games for people with intellectual disabilities. In many ways, these competitions are like sports run by any other organization, but there are some key differences.

Special Olympics Virginia athlete Daniel Morales intently eyes the basketball rim as an official keeps watch in the background

Special Olympics combines intense competition at all levels of age and ability with close attention to rules and protocol.

Competitions Are the Core

Special Olympics had more than 53,000 competitions in 2011. Not practices, but competitions in one or more of our 32 sports, many dozens a day on average.

Each competition represents many hours of training and practice by our athletes. Special Olympics ensures competitions are conducted in a safe, quality and dignified manner. As a result, athletes, coaches, families, officials, sponsors and the community are able to be part of Special Olympics competitions and be confident that a high standard of competition will be provided. Special Olympics also promotes the spirit of fair play, integrity and sportsmanship throughout all competitions.

300x200-track runners

In each division, the goal is to compose matches of athletes whose abilities and skills are close to one another.

Divisioning: Competitions with a Difference

Special Olympics sports competitions are based on the idea that athletes of all abilities should be given an equal chance of succeeding, whether it is a personal best or a gold medal. 

Special Olympics calls this competition-level matching “divisioning.” It’s a fundamental rule at Special Olympics that athletes in competitions are matched up with others of the same gender, about the same age and most importantly, of about the same competitive ability. 

Evening out by skill level and matching for age and gender makes Special Olympics events more exciting and meaningful for the athletes and the fans watching.

Divisioning is a two-stage process. Before each competition, a time, score or skill assessment is submitted for each athlete or team. For events that are not timed or measured, such as football and badminton, there is a series of short games between athletes or teams or an assessment of each athlete or team’s ability by a committee.. The divisions are then set up based on the information on each athlete’s skill level so that each set of competitors is closely matched.

Founding Principles

Special Olympics was founded in 1968 on the belief that people with intellectual disabilities benefit from participation in individual and team sports. Consistent training helps develop sport skills. Competition among those of equal abilities tests skills, measures progress and encourages personal growth.

Results: Beyond Gold

After the competions in each sport event division, there’s a medal ceremony, a dignified, meaningful celebration of their athletic accomplishments. 

First place finishers receive gold medals, second gets silver and third gets bronze, Award ribbons  of various colors are presented for finishers in 4th to 8th place.  Athletes who are disqualified for sport technical violations (it happens!) or do not finish the event are awarded a participation ribbon.


Major events, such as regional games, are set well in advance.


Each Special Olympics Program around the world plans out its events for the year. Special Olympics sports are divided between summer and winter events. Considering that there are Special Olympics offices in 170 countries, athletes in Australia might be doing swimming events while athletes in Poland are skiing.

Seasons are usually 10 weeks long, and start with weekly or twice-weekly practices. Competitions might be one-on-one team matchups or tournaments.

300x200 volunteers mind jumps

Volunteers watch and measure long jump distances.

Competitions Depend on Volunteers

Volunteers are vital to the success of a Special Olympics competition. Conducting a successful Special Olympics competition is a challenge that takes dedication and a lot of hard work. However, the results can be one of the most satisfying experiences in sports.

As much as possible, Special Olympics local competitions are run by and involve local volunteers. This makes Special Olympics a community activity that allows more people with intellectual disabilities to take part, but also to create opportunities for volunteers to get to know and appreciate people with intellectual disabilities.

300x200 Officials in Puerto Rico

Officials in white shirts observe the start of a race at the Special Olympics World Aquatics Invitational in Puerto Rico in 2012.

Coaches and Officials

Special Olympics provides detailed, in-depth coaching guides for its volunteer coaches. The coaches are a powerful and influential presence in the sporting lives of the athletes.

Volunteer sports officials (i.e. referees, judges, umpires) play a key role in Special Olympics competitions by ensuring by- the- book attention to the rules, which is necessary to preserve the integrity of the sport and fair competition for the athletes. Many competition officials are certified by the respective sport federation, either on a national or international basis. They are active in the sport, possess a comprehensive knowledge of sports specific rules, procedures and mechanics, thereby demonstrating and exemplifying high standard of officiating. There is always a need to get more officials involved with Special Olympics.

Sports Rules

Special Olympics sports competitions  operate in accordance with rules established by the International Federations (“IF’s”) or National Governing Bodies (“NGB's”) of each sport. The Official Special Olympics Sports Rules are intended to modify, where necessary, IF or NGB rules. In cases where IF or NGB rules are in conflict with the Official Special Olympics Sports Rules, the Official Special Olympics Sports Rules shall apply. Each Accredited Program or Games Organizing Committee is required to state the governing body rules that will serve as the reference point for each sport offered. At Special Olympics Regional and World Games, the International Federation rules shall be used.

How to Get Involved in Special Olympics

Special Olympics sports training, coaching and competitions go on in more than 170 countries around the world. You can get involved by getting in touch with the closest Special Olympics office.

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Made Possible by The Annenberg Foundation

The Special Olympics movement is profoundly grateful for the support of the Annenberg Foundation which has underwritten the production of the coaches’ guides and resources, supporting our global goals for coaches’ excellence.


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