By Barry Janoff
March 1, 2016: Last summer, Special Olympics successfully hosted the World Games Los Angeles, a week-long event that included some 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches representing 177 countries, 30,000 volunteers and an estimated 500,000 spectators.
World Games Los Angeles included such partners and supporters as AEG, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Kaiser Permanente, Mattel, Microsoft, the NFL, Procter & Gamble, Safeway Foundation, Toyota, Toys R Us, Kate Capshaw & Steven Spielberg, the U.S. Postal Service, Walt Disney Co., Wrigley Foundation and WWE.
Special Olympics dates back to the late 1950s when, according to the Washington DC-based organization, "Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. She also saw that many children with intellectual disabilities didn’t even have a place to play. She decided to take action."
Ultimately, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games ware held in Soldier Field, Chicago, on July 20, 1968. A thousand people with intellectual disabilities from 26 U.S. states and Canada compete in track and field, swimming and floor hockey.
From July 25-Aug. 2, 2015, the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles saw competition in 25 Olympic-type sports.
Special Olympics used the World Games, which had domestic and global media and broadcast coverage, to support its goal of breaking down barriers of prejudice and exclusion, not just in sports but in all aspects of life.
NYSportsJournalism, which named Special Olympics as the Grand Sports Marketer of the Year for 2015, spoke with Kirsten Suto Seckler, Special Olympics CMO, who has been with has been with the Special Olympics movement for more than 16 years, about the challenges of executing the World Games, the role of marketing partners, the impact on Los Angeles' bid to host the 2024 Summer Games and the reverberation of the World Games on raising of awareness of and respect for not just athletes but all people with intellectual disabilities.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What did you see as some of the biggest challenges and goals in putting the event together and how do you feel they played out?
Kirsten Suto Seckler: As with any large sports event, with multiple countries, athletes, coaches and supporters coming in — and here also working with a vulnerable population of people with intellectual disabilities — there are the regular challenges and also unexpected challenges in planning, preparation and then in actually activating the Games. Raising enough money to stage the Games was the top priority. Making sure accommodations, venues and transportation were all in place. And beyond the Games in Los Angeles themselves, we wanted to have programs to show all the work we do everyday around the world. So in addition to putting on sports events, we wanted to make sure that people had activities so that they could can get a sense of the impact that we make around the world as a nonprofit. A lot of challenges came with coordinating the event, getting tens of thousands of people into one city at one time. But everything did come together. In retrospect, the Games were fantastic.
NYSJ: What were some of the most impactful elements that corporate and media partners brought to the event: Knowledge, experience, finances, contacts, creativity, opening doors to other alliances?
KS: We had a lot a strong partners who worked with us in impactful and unique ways. Bank of America supported the Unified Relay Across America, which was a 46-state, three-route torch run involving more than 10,000 people, which culminated in Los Angeles. That rallied the nation to get excited about the World Games. Promotional partners such as WWE and NFL came in to hold clinics, flag-football games and other events to support us. Companies such as Toyota and Coca-Cola added their voices across the nation and around the world.
NYSJ: What impact did ESPN having coming in to broadcast and cover the Games from start to finish?
KS: That had a huge impact. It was a real game-changer for us. They didn't just broadcast Opening and Closing Ceremonies, but had daily competition, nightly highlights, features on athletes and coaches and other cultural activities. In the past, we may have had a broadcast partner that showed the Opening Ceremony live, but not with the production value that ESPN had. They broadcast a three-hour Opening Ceremony Special (hosted by Robin Roberts, Lindsay Czarniak and Kevin Negandhi). They aired a 30 For 30 short, Brave In The Attempt (from executive producer Maria Shriver about her mother and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver). They gave people access to the Games through their networks and platforms worldwide. It was amazing. And we may have had an editorial clip here and there. But ESPN came in with the intent to change attitudes, to create acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. To treat our athletes as they would any other athlete that they cover. And they did an incredible job.
NYSJ: From the start of planning for the World Games through its conclusion, do you feel that a growing number of people not specifically involved with the event itself viewed this more as a competition among skilled athletes as opposed to a competition involving Special athletes?
KS: That is our goal. We want people with intellectual disabilities to be included. Sadly, they are the most marginalized population on earth. They make up 3% of the population. They often are not counted, not included. Ignored, Outside the U.S., there are other devastating factors, such as human trafficking. Gross neglect. There are health disparities for people with intellectual disabilities.
There is a huge gap even here in the U.S., where you would believe that everyone has access to great health care. So we are constantly fighting these stigmas and stereotype and challenges to make sure that our athletes, and all people with intellectual disabilities, are valued and counted in society. So when you have partners that we did to come on-board to help you do that, who all positioned our athletes as equals to anybody else, and sent a strong message about inclusion, that is game-changing and satisfying for us.
NYSJ: In working with the LA 2024 Olympic Bid Committee, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and others, was there a feeling that the impact of the World Games could play a role in helping the USOC select Los Angeles as its bid city for the 2024 Summer Games?
KS: The 2024 Los Angeles Olympic Bid Committee tapped into as many people as they could to help with our Games. They helped us welcome everyone to Los Angeles. Mayor Garcetti was a huge supporter of the Games. He came out to as many events as he could. We saw a lot of support, be it through the talent in Hollywood, sports teams and really the whole city, which came out to support the Games. You could feel the passion of Los Angeles being a sports city. The legacy of the 1984 Summer Games was running through everyone's veins during the planning and organizing of our Games.
NYSJ: What do you see as key elements taken from the 2015 World Games moving forward to the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria (March 14-25)?
KS: We learned a lot in Los Angeles that we will be using and building on. The World WInter Games are not that far away. We are definitely in full-force planning for those games. We just had our pre-games, to test the operations to get things ready for our one-year out timetable. We have a team on the ground in Austria, doing a great job. Delegations are being selected as we speak. In September we will know who is going to the World Winter Games, where we plan to have about 3,000 athletes from 120 countries. It's exciting.
NYSJ: What is/are the message(s) you would like people to take from Special Olympics to use in their own lives?
KS: Anyone can be part of our movement, whether they want to be a coach, a volunteer at a program or even becoming a unified partner. We offer sports now for people with or without intellectual disabilities where they can play and compete on the same team. That is becoming really popular, especially in schools throughout the U.S., where we are seeing not only a varsity team and a JV team but now a unified sports team where you can letter in our sports. So it's really a movement for all of us. If you believe in inclusion, respect and valuing everybody, this is a welcome place for anyone who wants to break down barriers through sports. With the enormous amount of stigma that we fight, we moved the needle. Even if was a little bit, that matters. And we will continue with that momentum on a year-round basis and not just around the World Games.
Grand Sports Marketer Of The Year 2015: Special Olympics World Games L.A.
Top Sports Marketers Of The Year 2015: Special Olympics World Games L.A.