Traditional Greek welcome for GB's Special Olympians

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Feature - Athletes prepare for Special Olympic World Games ceremony

The 214-strong Great Britain Special Olympic team have been acclimatising ahead of competition in Athens next week on the idyllic island of Skiathos.

It's a truly wonderful place to be and I'm with a wonderful group of people, some of whom are competing abroad for the first time.

Indeed, in some cases, it's the first time away from home and the familiar level of care and support that someone with a learning disability can need.

Just ahead of the competition, the team participates in what's known as the host town programme.

GB head of delegation Gordon McCormack said: "It's important that the athletes get used to making decisions for themselves and take responsibility for certain parts of their day-to-day routine.

"It's a wonderful experience for them; their communication starts to come out, they start to blossom as people trying to find out what life is all about."

It's my impression that the cultural experience gained from participation in a World Games is almost as important as that earned on the field.

The athletes and coaches have also been enjoying a special level of hospitality here, something that the Greeks like to call "filoxenia".

According to a local resident this tradition is based on the ancient Greek gods Zeus and Hermes.

Special Olympian Alex Ferrier
Special Olympian Alex Ferrier is relishing his time at the Games

As the story goes, the duo once posed as beggars and visited a small village.

They went from door to door asking for some sustenance and were turned down until they met one of the poorest villagers.

The family welcomed them in and gave them what little they had. A short time later, Zeus turned and asked his kind hosts for some more wine.

Embarrassed, the lady of the house said: "I'm so sorry, we have no more."

Zeus told the woman to look again, and when she did, the wine cask was full to the brim.

The story goes on to say that the rest of the village perished, yet the benevolent family survived and, to this day, the Greek tradition of being a kind and generous host may be attributed to this.

Whatever the truth of the tale, it's certainly been my experience that the people of Skiathos have been extremely welcoming and generous to our athletes, particularly considering the austere times that the country is experiencing.

Local hotels, tavernas and restaurants have offered free accommodation and meals, and everywhere the athletes go there is a warm smile or wave.

"The squad has been blown away by the reaction of local people and holidaymakers," said McCormack.

"People are standing up and applauding us every step of the way and that sort of spirit really does impact on the confidence and team spirit."

The athletes seem to appreciate all that has been done for them.

Yesterday on a visit to the Monastery of the Annunciation, a religious and inspirational place known as the heart of the Greek independence movement, judo athlete Alex Ferrier told me: "I'm having a brilliant time.

"I love meeting people from different countries and the weather is certainly better than it is in Glasgow."

Ferrier, like every single athlete I've spoken to, is looking forward to competing next week.

"I can't be nervous or I'll lose my concentration and I need to keep a balanced level of confidence," he said.

"I can't get over-confident or I'll lose - you have to keep level-headed when competing."

And with an attitude like that, how can the young man, or any of our athletes, fail?

The group travels to Athens on Friday with the opening ceremony taking place on Saturday. Competition starts in earnest the following day.

I'll be following the team closely and am very much looking forward to it.

With the inspirational stories that will no doubt emerge, I hope you are too.

Follow Paul's reports from the Special Olympics from 25 June - 4 July on Reporting Scotland, BBC One Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland 92-95 FM and 810 MW and online.

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