Britain's forgotten Olympians

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Special Olympians dedicated to the cause

This weekend a 215-strong British delegation will arrive in Athens for the biggest sporting event of 2011. But you might not be aware of them, nor indeed the event they are competing in.

The Special Olympics is for competitors with learning disabilities and some 7000 of them will compete in Greece this month. The event is part of the Olympic family, but in Britain it is very much the poor relation.

Whilst the GB Paralympic team (for athletes with physical disability) secured almost £50m of lottery money in the last round of funding, the Special Olympics squad do not qualify. It is not considered 'elite sport' and so gets nothing. For many, that is very hard to justify.

Karen Wallin is the Chief Executive of Special Olympics in Britain. I met her at Downing Street where Prime Minister David Cameron posed for photographs with some members of the squad. It was an exciting moment for all concerned, and a sign of growing recognition.

But it will mean little unless it leads to a review of Special Olympics funding status. For Karen the value of sport for her competitors is almost limitless.

"Especially for people with learning disabilities, this is not just about sport; this is about their health, their well-being, their mental health as well. It helps the families who also have to look after athletes with learning disabilities. It's doing a whole job of work.''

I was lucky enough to spend time with Beth Tweddle, Britain's most successful gymnast ever, as she mentored Omar Haddad, a leading gymnast with the Special Olympics squad.

The toughest part of the session was trying to force Omar to take a break. He has been doing gymnastics for longer that he can remember - his floor routine for Athens has taken two years of hard work - even if he is normally forced to use a gym that does not even have a sprung floor.

His coach told me that gymnastics has given Omar an opportunity to gain pride and status in his life, qualities that are often very hard for young people with learning disabilities to achieve through education and employment.

I asked Omar if gymnastics was hard work or fun. "Hard work," he replied, before adding "fun too," with a grin.

Special Olympic athletes specialise in enthusiasm, and it is infectious. Tweddle is one who has been inspired by her involvement with Omar.

"Omar's in the gym, just like I'm in the gym, training," she explains. "The Special Olympics for him is just like me going to London 2012 next year, I just think they deserve that recognition."

But Omar, like all the Special Olympians, has had to raise £2000 just to get to the Special Olympics in Athens. Sponsors like National Grid are plugging some of the funding gap but it is a continual battle to find money.

Lawrie McMenemy, who famously managed Southampton to the FA Cup in 1976, is one of the most passionate Special Olympics ambassadors. He told me he will be badgering the Premier League to increase the donation it promised earlier this year.

But the ultimate aim is to secure lottery funding. For the competitors and their families it may not be elite sport, but it is without question both essential and empowering.

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