July 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Connecticut in 1995. These Games included over 7,000 athletes, over 60,000 volunteers, and countless milestones for the Special Olympics movement. They were the first Games to include a Healthy Athletes program, providing health screenings for athletes and, in some cases, providing the first screening from a doctor trained in treating people with intellectual disabilities (ID). They were also the first Games to include Special Olympics athletes as certified officials. An additional notable legacy from the 1995 World Games was the creation of the Host Town Program.
The Host Town Program provides Special Olympics athletes multiple days to acclimate to a new location before their World Games competitions begin. The program also provides the athletes with the opportunity to experience the local culture of the host country and raise awareness for people with ID throughout the country through interaction with its citizens.
Peter Wheeler, Executive Director for Special Olympics Connecticut at the time of the 1995 Games, worked to create the Host Town Program. He wanted the athletes to have a chance to rest after their long journeys to Connecticut so that they could perform to the best of their ability during competition, but the opportunity did not stop there. He also saw it as a chance to strengthen local programs across Special Olympics Connecticut, connecting the entire state and allowing everyone involved to feel that they had a part in hosting the 1995 World Games.
In total, 170 towns throughout the state of Connecticut participated in the Host Town Program in 1995. The athletes were welcomed into the homes of volunteers. Each town had a Host Town Volunteer Committee that was responsible for raising money to cover the costs associated with hosting the athletes, including accommodation, meals, entertainment, and transportation. According to Wheeler, the volunteers did such a great job welcoming the athletes to their host towns that there were many cases of athletes who were disappointed to have to leave their host town to head to New Haven for the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
Continued Legacy of the Host Town Program
A Host Town Program has been a part of Special Olympics World Games since 1995. It has become a staple of each Games that provides host countries with the opportunity to showcase their local culture and get to know the athletes coming to compete in the World Games.
The 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland were the first World Games hosted outside of the United States. 5,500 athletes were welcomed into 170 host towns throughout the island of Ireland.
According to Peter O’Brien, Director of Support Services for the World Games Organizing Committee, each town was invited to put up signs for the Special Olympics athletes to see as they entered the Host Town. The signs indicated the name of the town and the Special Olympics Program they would host. Almost 20 years later, many of these signs can still be found throughout Ireland.
In the years following the 2003 World Games, the number of Special Olympics clubs in Ireland doubled, due in part to the increased involvement in volunteers who participated in the Host Town Program. Another result included Trinity College in Dublin created the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities within the college’s School of Education. The program continues today to address the educational and societal barriers those with ID still face and to provide educational opportunities and resources for people with ID.
The 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games took place in Nagano, Japan. 84 nations traveled to Japan for the first Special Olympics World Games to take place in Asia. 70 host towns throughout the country welcomed nearly 2,000 athletes for 4 days before the Games began.
The village of Azumi hosted the Special Olympics Iraq floor hockey team. They used food as a way to bridge the gap between the groups. To help the athletes feel more welcome in their temporary home, they contacted the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo before the Games to learn about traditional Iraqi cuisine so they could prepare it for their guests. They also introduced the athletes to traditional Japanese food.
Present Day Host Town Program
Since its inception 25 years ago, the Host Town Program has continued to grow in size and impact. The Host Town Program for the World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 was the largest cultural exchange program to ever take place in the region. 7,500 athletes and their coaches were spread throughout the 7 emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and given a chance to learn about the UAE culture and traditions.
Each emirate had Host Town Committees, similar to the committees in 1995, that worked together to deliver a Host Town Program that the entire nation was proud of. Entertainment throughout the Host Town Program included a wide range of activities including a trip to an amusement park, music, and dancing.
Peter Wheeler remained involved in Special Olympics long after the Games in New Haven were over. Most recently, he served as the CEO of the World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. He is proud of the way the Host Town Program has evolved since he instituted it at the 1995 World Games. While the world changed significantly over the 24 years between the events, the goal of the program remained the same. What started as an outlet for athletes to rest after a long journey to World Games, has continued to grow into one of the most highly-anticipated events within the Special Olympics World Games.
The Host Town Program brings together athletes, families, and volunteers from around the world to celebrate athlete achievement and change public attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities – a legacy goal of any World Games host.
Starting in 1995 and carrying on for years to come, the impact of the Host Town Program begins before the first World Games medal is won, and its legacy carries on in the hearts and minds of those who participated for years after.