Special Olympics
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Special Olympics
Special Olympics
Special Olympics

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Special Olympics Ireland offers a year round sports training and competition programme for children and adults with a learning disability in a variety of Olympics type sports. By offering a range of events in each sport, there is an opportunity provided for all athletes, irrespective of their ability, to participate at their own level.


Overview of Activities

Special Olympics offer a range of sports and events to cater for all levels of an athlete’s ability. The programme also offers a Motor Activities Training Programme for those athletes who do not as yet have the required skills to participate in a sport in accordance with the official rules of that sport.


At present, the sports offered by Special Olympics Ireland are at various stages of development and have been categorised into 3 defined groups as emerging, new and existing sports.


Summer Sports:

Emerging sports
Included in this group are the sports of Cycling, Volleyball, Tennis, Team Handball, Powerlifting, Judo and Sailing.  
Relationships will be developed with the relevant National Governing Body of sport with a view to ascertain the possibility of the introduction of these sports in a phased manner in the coming years.


New sports
Badminton, Bocce, Kayaking and Pitch & Putt are in this group and some Special Olympics athletes are participating in these sports.  However a planned structure to develop these sports will be put in place for the programme.


Existing sports
This group includes the sports of Athletics, Aquatics, Gymnastics, Golf, Equestrian, Football, Basketball, Table Tennis and Bowling.  A training and competition programme is in place in these sports and this will be further enhanced in the coming months.


Winter sports
Alpine Skiing


Motor Activities Training Programme

In addition to the competitive programme, Special Olympics Ireland offers a year round non-competitive, Motor Activities Training Programme.


Official Sports Rules

It is important to note that all Special Olympics competitions are governed by official sports rules. Special Olympics is an international sports organisation and its rules are based on the relevant International Sports federation and National Governing Body rules. In some sports, where additional events are offered specific to Special Olympics, official rules have been created and are enforced in competitionSpecial Olympics Rules are reviewed following each World Summer Games and World Winter Games.


Other Sports Opportunities

In addition to the training and competition opportunities outlined, Special Olympics Ireland in the course of its Strategic Plan 2004-2007 will develop additional opportunities for athlete’s involvement including Unified Sports®, Athletes as Coaches and Special Olympics Officials Programme for Athletes (SOOPA).

·         Unified Sports® brings together athletes with and without learning disabilities to train and compete on the same team. The programme enables athletes to develop higher-level sports skills, socialise with peers and form friendships, and have choices outside of Special Olympics.

·          Athletes as Coaches- through the developments in the Coach Education Programme it will offer the opportunity for athletes who have the required skills to train as coaches at the appropriate level.

·          Special Olympics Officials Programme for Athletes (SOOPA).

This programme will be developed in collaboration with those sports that offer officials training courses as an integral part of their sport.



The fundamental difference that sets Special Olympics apart from all other sports organizations is the divisioning process that is used to group athletes or teams in competition to ensure fair competition at all ability levels and the recognition of every athlete or team for their performance.


How does the Divisioning Process work?

An athlete’s ability is the primary factor in divisioning for Special Olympics competition.  The ability of an athlete or team is determined by a score from a previous competition or a preliminary event at the competition itself.

Athletes and teams are grouped by gender, age and ability.

Gender - female athletes compete with females, male athletes compete with males. However there are exceptions - where a sport traditionally offers mixed events e.g. mixed doubles in tennis, table tennis and bowling, or where the sport offers competition to combined genders e.g. equestrian, both males and females compete together.

Where this is not the norm, and a team has mixed genders e.g. relay teams in athletics or aquatics, or mixed genders on football or basketball teams, in the first instance these teams will compete against each other, and where this is not possible, these teams will compete in the male division of that competition.

Group athletes by age - In doubles or team events, the oldest athlete on the team determines the age group e.g. 4 athletes on a relay team with age range from 16 – 23 years, that relay team will compete in the 22 – 29 years division.

Group athletes by ability

Age Groups

Individual Sports      Team Sports                 

  8 – 11 years            15 years and under

12 – 15 years            16 – 21 years                     

16 – 21 years             22 years and over

22 – 29 years

30 years and over


Creating a Division

Generally divisions are created which will have a minimum of 3 teams or individuals and a maximum of 8. 

In exceptional circumstances, where there are an in-sufficient number of athletes to reach the minimum number, a 1 or 2 person division may occur.



Every athlete is recognised for his/her performance, and official medals are awarded for first through third place, and official ribbons for fourth through to eight places.


Advancement through Competition

Competitions are held at a number of levels in Special Olympics and it is important that the procedure to advance from one level to the next is understood.  ‘The criteria for advancement and the divisioning process are considered tow of the most critical elements of Special Olympics and serve to distinguish it from virtually every other sports organization in the world’ – Article 1, Special Olympics International.

To advance to a higher level of competition an athlete must have been placed first, second or third at the lower level of competition in the same sport.  When a situation exists that prohibits all first, second or third place winners from advancing to the next level of competition, for example a quota of 5 athletes is offered and there are 50 first, second and third place winners from the previous highest level competition, selection will occur as follows;


·          as the number of eligible athletes exceeds the quota, random selection will occur from all first place winners to select the 5 athletes. 

·          in a situation where the quota is higher and there are in-sufficient first place winners available, random selection will occur from among all second place winners until the quota is filled.


An athlete should not be barred from future competition because of prior competition e.g. an athlete who competed in the 1998 National Games is eligible to compete at the 2002 National Games provided he/she meets the eligibility criteria.


Opportunity for Coaches

Coach Education

A coach plays a unique role in Special Olympics by providing the sports skills training necessary for athletes to apply in competition; they ensure that athletes can reach their full potential to participate to the best of their ability in their chosen sport and assist in their training for life.  The key to improving an athlete’s performance is based on the quality of the training and experiences provided by the coach.

Special Olympics Ireland encourages all of its coaches to undertake their coaching with the relevant National Governing Body (NGB) of sport.  Coach education is an on-going experience and in order to provide the best quality experience to athletes, continuing education is a necessity.


As a partner in the National Coaching Development Programme, Special Olympics offer courses, where demand exists, and also circulates NGB coach education courses where this is supplied, to the Regions. Moving forward, Special Olympics Ireland would encourage potential coaches to contact the relevant NGB directly for their calendar of courses. 

A National Training school offering a comprehensive range of courses is offered yearly.


For those volunteers who have not decided which particular sport they may wish to become involved with, Special Olympics Ireland offer an Introductory to Coaching course for those potential coaches.  In addition, specific Special Olympics modules will be developed for some sports where there are additional events which would not be covered in the particular NGB course.



Participation is open to any person with a learning disability to train from six years of age and to compete from eight years of age and there is no upper age limit. Through the range of sports programmes offered, Special Olympics Ireland provides opportunities to train and compete for all levels of an athlete’s ability.


Unified Sports® is a programme that combines approximately equal numbers of Special Olympics athletes and partners without a learning disability participating on the same team for training and competition.  While there are no specific criteria to participate as a partner, however age and ability matching of partners with athletes is defined on a sport-by-sport basis. Unified Sports® was developed to give greater choice to athletes and to bring about meaningful inclusion.

The same criteria apply both to athletes and partners for competition in terms of submission of the required registration and medical and release forms. 


Current Opportunities

Special Olympics Ireland offers opportunities for athletes to compete at Area, Regional and National level. Every four years World Games are held alternating between Winter and Summer. Additional competition is provided at various times by single sports tournaments and international events. This year Special Olympics Ireland will participate in the first ever European 7-aside Football tournament in Luxembourg.


Please consult the Sports Diary of Events for details of competition events.

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