Healthy Athletes: A Gateway to Inclusive Health Care in Sweden

Athlete trying on ski glasses as a volunteer shows him his reflection in a handheld mirror.
An athlete visits the Opening Eyes station during Healthy Athletes at the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games.

A unique buzz filled the corridors of the Mid Sweden University in Östersund. As local students made their way to lectures, athletes competing in the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games 2020 participated in free health screenings through the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programme.

This was the very first time that Healthy Athletes—organised in Östersund in cooperation with the Mid Sweden University and made possible by the Golisano Foundation—has taken place in Sweden. The programme offers free screening activities in a range of disciplines—from mental health to dental care—in a relaxed and collaborative environment.

Here in Sweden and across the world, it is not only the athletes who benefit from Healthy Athletes, the programme offers health care students and clinical directors the opportunity to increase their knowledge of best practices in caring for people with intellectual disabilities.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the Healthy Athletes event put together by Special Olympics Sweden,” noted Ilse Hemmelmayr, Specialist in Health Programmes, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia. “This is going to be a really great stepping stone for the continuation of the programme [in Sweden] and for inclusive health in general.”

An athlete and volunteer sitting on the ground working on exercises.
FUNfitness training during Healthy Athletes at the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games.

While there is a general perception that Sweden is a leader in providing equal access to quality health care, for people with intellectual disabilities, this is not always the case. People with intellectual disabilities often experience poorer quality and diminished access to health services. In terms of health outcomes, the figures are stark for people with intellectual disabilities—in Sweden, it is estimated that 52 percent of people with intellectual disabilities are obese.

One of the main objectives of the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games is to get more people active in sports clubs. This is a key element in the long-term effort by the Swedish Parasport Federation and the public health sector to promote better health for people with intellectual disabilities.

Jay Choi showing off his medals hanging around his neck and giving a double thumbs-up.
Jay Choi (SO USA) at Opening Eyes during Healthy Athletes at the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games.

One of the eight disciplines of Healthy Athletes is Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes which focuses on testing athletes’ eye health. One of the many athletes who passed through Opening Eyes is Jay Choi, who represents the Special Olympics USA as a short track speed skater. Before receiving a free eye exam to determine whether he needs new prescription glasses, he won three gold medals at the Special Olympics Invitational Games.

“Healthy Athletes is very important and has really impacted me. When I was born I was very sick and had a lot of health issues,” Choi said.

“With Special Olympics I get to race competitively and the Healthy Athletes programme allows me to track my health and see how I am doing. It helps a lot with my health, and will be important for me also in the future.”

The programme also offers a vital store of data on the health of populations with intellectual disabilities. “The screening activities that we are doing really help us to get a baseline and study the data,” Lonnie Snyder, Special Olympics Senior Vice President of Information Technology, said. “This way we can provide them with strategies for improving their health. Altogether, from head to toe, it really helps people to not only become healthier, but also become better athletes.”

Healthy Athletes in Sweden

During Healthy Athletes at Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games 2020:

  • Over 1,000 screenings were conducted
  • 252 individuals with intellectual disabilities participated
  • Athletes from 18 of the 20 delegations at the Invitational Games attended Healthy Athletes

Healthy Athletes in Sweden was kindly supported by the Golisano Foundation, Lions Clubs International, Essilor Sweden, the Safilo Group, Starkey Hearing Foundation and Starkey Hearing Technologies and the European Union.

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