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Podcast Highlights ESPN and Special Olympics Relationship

Special Olympics has come a long way since 1968 and now it goes beyond just sports. In the past two weeks, the Landscape Podcast, a series of episodes highlighting people, programs and businesses changing the landscape for individuals with any type of disability, has focused on Special Olympics and ESPN.
ESPN's relationship with Special Olympics dates back nearly 35 years and recently extended its broadcasting rights as global broadcast partner for Special Olympics World Summer Games, Special Olympics World Winter Games and Special Olympics USA Games through 2027.

On the August 16, 2020 episode of the Landscape, host Naveh Eldar interviewed leadership from ESPN. Throughout the episode, they touched on the relationship with Special Olympics, including broadcasting World Games and USA Games, as well as creating year-round content.

The Landscape

ESPN - Special Olympics Partnership / Athletes with Disabilities / Diversity & Inclusion

The Landscapes with Naveh Elder Welcomes ESPN | Special Olympics: Athletes with a disability, diversity and Inclusion | Wokie Daboh, Kate Jackson, and John Papa; images of the speakers are included under each persons name.

Kate Jackson, an Emmy Award-winning producer part of ESPN’s broadcast team for Special Olympics, said, "In 2015, I had been with the company 15 years and I worked on a variety of things. And it's really rare that you get a blank canvas essentially that your bosses just say to you, I have this really awesome opportunity and it can be whatever we want it to be, so what do you think it should be?" about the start of the coverage.

ESPN built their coverage plan like any other sporting event. Live broadcast of the excitement and emotion of the Opening Ceremony. Daily re-cap shows feature highlights from various sports and special events and features documenting the athletes' personal stories.

They introduced a Unified broadcast approach using Special Olympics athletes Dustin Plunkett and Daina Shilts as correspondents for both USA Games and World Games.

"I would tell you this; I don't know if we think about it in terms of diversity and inclusion when we had Special Olympics athletes as our commentators," Jackson said about the inclusion of athletes at the broadcast table. "I sort of thought about it like, if I was working on the NFL, I would certainly have a former NFL player talk about it. I'm working on Special Olympics, I kind of feel like I should have a Special Olympics athlete."

During the interview, Jackson speaks about how ESPN is doing much more than broadcasting. She mentioned how last year, a Special Olympics athlete interned at ESPN, which prompted Eldar to have a special release of a Landscape episode. That athlete was me.

The Landscape with Naveh Eldar Welcomes RJ Nealon of Special Olympics | Special Olympics, Unified Sports Movement, Inclusion. Image of RJ Nealon with text that reads: Special Olympics North America Communications Fellow and Athlete Reporter.

The Landscape

Special Olympics - RJ Nealon, Athlete Reporter & Fellow

On August 23, an episode featuring myself, a Special Olympics North America communications fellow and athlete reporter, was released. Continuing from the ESPN episode, Eldar looked at the work being done with Special Olympics, this time from an inside perspective.

I highlighted the levels of competition, what Special Olympics Unified Sports® are, what I'd like to see in the future and what it's like to be an athlete leader and self-advocate.

Having competed for nearly 15 years and now being an athlete leader, it wasn't until I got older that I realized Special Olympics is much more than just sports. "It's about leadership, education and health," I expressed during the episode. "To be honest with you, I've learned more about the movement and power of inclusion than I ever did only competing as an athlete."

The message is simple. "Do some research. Find your local Special Olympics Program and get involved whether it be as a coach, a referee, volunteer, or Unified partner," I said. "It makes you so happy and it's so fulfilling watching athletes succeed and go beyond just sports."

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