Great Britain's Special Olympics squad welcomed to Greece

By Joe WilsonBBC Sport

Great Britain's Special Olympics squad members have been overwhelmed by the welcome they have received ahead of Saturday's opening ceremony in Athens.

The 151-strong squad of athletes will compete in 17 of the 22 sports during the event which closes on 4 July.

The team are acclimatising on the island of Skiathos in preparation for the 13th World Summer Games.

Head of delegation Gordon McCormack said: "The squad has been blown away by the reaction of local people."

More than 7,000 competitors will take part in the Special Olympics, one of the biggest sporting events of 2011 for people with learning disabilities.

Preparation for Great Britain's squad includes time for personal development, so athletes and coaches have taken time out to visit the Monastery of Evangelistria and learn Greek dancing on the island where the movie Mamma Mia was filmed.

The team travelled to Greece without significant government funding, and each competitor has had to raise £2,000 to take part.

But the welcome in Greece has helped to generate a feeling that the tide is turning. Behind the scenes in London, dialogue will continue this summer about reviewing lottery funding.

McCormack believes awareness is growing, and maybe even attitudes are changing.

"People have been standing up and applauding us every step of the way and that sort of spirit really does impact on the confidence and team spirit of everyone concerned," he added.

''Hopefully we can benefit from this new-found support and give our athletes the profile and recognition that they truly deserve. A team returning home to Heathrow on 5 July laden with medals and happy faces will play a big part in that.''

The target of winning medals is highly significant for the competitors but the importance of achieving personal goals irrespective of opponents is a key part of the Special Olympics ethos.

In this sense, learning disability sport may not be elite sport but so far in Greece the squad members appear to feel valued and inspired.

The Great Britain team will compete in aquatics, athletics, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, cycling, equestrian, football (including unified football), golf, artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, judo, kayaking, powerlifting, sailing, table tennis and tennis.