Lighting the flame of inclusive attitudes—the core commitment on day one of the Global Youth Leadership Forum

Special Olympics Chairman Dr Timothy Shriver (L) and the honorable Azad Rahimov, Minister of Youth and Sport of Azrbaijian together with Special Olympics athletes from Azerbaijan light the flame.

by Bavo Delbaere, AIPS Young Reporter, Belgium

We are here not because we haven’t made progress, but because we haven’t made enough.
The Global Youth Leadership forum officially kicked-off in Baku with these words by Chairman of Special Olympics Dr. Timothy Shriver.

The attending crowd consisted of people from different nationalities, descents, races, ages and abilities—an actual reflection of the diversity of citizens the forum wants to bring together.

Photographers, television journalists and the written press gathered at the Boulevard Hotel in Baku to captivate the message that Special Olympics is bringing to Azerbaijan for the first time.

An unequivocal message The Special Olympics Chairman had quickly won over the crowd with his smile and charisma, but he was there to do more than that. His message to all those who continue to fight for and benefit from Special Olympics was clear—there were so many more attitudes—‘attitudes of mass destruction’ as he put it, that need to be inspired to change, to understand more, include more, do more, do better.

The Forum in Baku is a part of the Special Olympics 50th anniversary celebrations. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, it once derived from summer camps where youngsters gave up their holidays to be of help for people with an intellectual disability. When culture said ‘ no ‘, younger people opened up.

Dr. Shriver expressed his hopes that everyone on the forum will try to listen and be receptive up for a new kind of energy giving birth. Because that is the energy the world needs right now to protect the itself from these attitudes of mass destruction.

Super model. Role model Those closely involved with the movement, as long time impact partners, and board members climbed the stage to share more than just words of welcome on the opening day, but personal perspectives on the forum. One of them was the Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova, who - with great sincerity and lump in her throat—spoke about her sister Oksana.

“When I was growing up with my younger sister Oksana who has special needs, walking on the streets I heard voices saying, “that child is useless” But she was not born to be used, she was born to be loved, like all of us!”

Natalia Vodianova, along with being a board member for Special Olympics International is in volved with empowerment and charity work worldwide, and is the founder of the Naked Heart Foundation, that supports children with special needs in Russia.

Her mere presence in Baku left an incredible mark, but the words she spoke resonated even
longer.

An important partnership for inclusion was also signed between Special Olympics and the United Nations Population Fund during the Opening Day
An important partnership for inclusion was also signed between Special Olympics and the United Nations Population Fund during the Opening Day.

Baku as a beacon of hope The Honorable Azad Rahimov, Minister of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Azerbaijan, showed great pride being able to welcome this event in the capital of his country.

For the Azerbaijani government, this forum is a great opportunity to demonstrate the value they place on young people; with or without an intellectual disability.

“We hope the forum will inspire people with physical and intellectual disabilities and create greater opportunities for them to become full and achieved members of their communities,” the Minister said.

The key to many of those opportunities, he added, is sport. “Azerbaijan has been a member of the Special Olympic movement for 25 years and each medal or sporting victory creates more confidence for people with a physical or intellectual disability.”

Igniting a movement There is no ceremony without symbols, and no (Special) Olympics without a flame. To consolidate the commitment of the organization, two important rituals took place. The official Special Olympics flag was hoisted next to the podium. When it peers over the attendees it reminds them that the forum stays true to the colors and meaning of the flag.

Thereafter the flame of hope was guided into the room. It is an eternal symbol of triumph and joy that burns 365 days a year. Just like vibrant Flame Towers lighting up the Baku-skyline, the flame of hope lights up the Special Olympic movement. In the next three days, the goal is that its energy will give courage to so many to no longer be silent and to speak up.