The Power of Youth Leadership: Driving Unified Sports in Sweden

Two young man standing side by side, the young man on the right is waving to someone off camera.
Olle Ekman (left) and Isak Langfors (right), Youth Leaders from Special Olympics Sweden, addressing participants at the Special Olympics European Youth Leadership Summit in Östersund, Sweden.

In 2019, Isak Langfors and Olle Ekman from Uppsala in Sweden had a simple dream—to ensure that young people with intellectual disabilities in their city could experience the joy of football. Little did they know that this dream would connect them with a network of impassioned Special Olympics Youth Leaders from across the world. Little did they know that it would lead them to the recent Special Olympics European Youth Leadership Summit in Östersund, Sweden!

Supported by a grant from Special Olympics International, for over a year now, Isak aged 25 and Olle aged 20 have been diligently developing their Youth Innovation Project, titled ‘Unified Sports in Sweden’. The aim is to drive the growth of Unified Sports—where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities compete side by side—in their home town of Uppsala, and ultimately across Sweden. Their first step last September was the creation of Football Day in Uppsala where six schools from across the city brought together 60 students with intellectual disabilities to enjoy the ‘beautiful game’ of football.

“Football Day was a huge success,” says Isak. “Many smiles and many happy footballers. We really felt that everyone left that day with a smile on their face!”. Isak brings his own experience as a young person with an intellectual disability growing up in Uppsala to the project.

“I was a part of Special Education classes throughout my life and I have a knowledge that not many people have—of the school system and the obstacles in life and sport. We use this in everything we’re trying to do and the opportunities we’re trying to create.”
Isak Langfors

Olle adds, “We want children and young people with intellectual disabilities to have the opportunity to find happiness in football and sports, to play on their own terms and experience all of the benefits that come with physical activity.”

A group of young adults standing together in a large group at Special Olympics Youth Summit in Östersund 2020
(Front row left to right) Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director, David Evangelista with Youth Leaders, Isak Langfors and Olle Ekman, at the Special Olympics European Youth Leadership Summit in in Östersund, Sweden.

As their project grows, Isak and Olle have both found huge support in the diverse, international network of inspiring Youth Leaders across the world who are also working to create a change in their schools, communities, cities and countries. Truly, the beauty of the butterfly effect in action! The Special Olympics European Youth Leadership Summit—which took place from 1 to 3 February—was the perfect opportunity for Olle, Isak and 22 fellow Youth Leaders to learn, discuss, share and motivate each other—as well as understanding theories and getting hands on training from experts.

Olle notes, “For me, this Summit is about encouragement and inspiration. We’re so new to the scene and the mindset, and these other Youth Leaders show us what can be accomplished. We don’t have results yet but they do. It’s really encouraging to learn from them—get energised here and go home to Uppsala to continue implementing our project.”

As for the future of ‘Unified Sports in Sweden’, another Football Day is in the works for May—when the grass in Sweden is once again green. This will be another building block in Isak and Olle’s grand plan of driving Unified Sports forward in Sweden. Isak concludes with a smile, “Unified Sports is very new for Sweden but it is the future … We’re making small steps right now but Unified is going to be bigger and bigger in Sweden!”

The Special Olympics European Youth Leadership Summit 2020 was generously supported by Lane Global Youth Leadership, Kantar, Microsoft and the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

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