Mixed sex Basketball players tackling for the ball. One team wears yellow vests the other team wears brown vests.

THE COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the lives of countless, disproportionately impacting persons with disabilities. As the world begins to work to build back, Special Olympics is among the ‘We the 15’ voices insisting that we do not leave the one billion persons with disabilities – 15% of our global family – behind.

A 2021 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Catalyst found that people with intellectual disabilities are almost six times more likely to die from COVID than the general population. Fear of exposure coupled with dramatically decreased opportunities to engage at in-person sport events saw Special Olympics athlete numbers drop by a staggering proportion. New research reveals that some 40% of Special Olympics athletes – 2.5 million globally – have lost access to our movement in 2020. In Europe, this new data reveals that 100,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities were impacted, losing out on accessing the many Special Olympics’ supports and interventions that they relied on, including sport and health opportunities

Today, as we celebrate the United Nations annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia is fighting back with Faces of Basketball, a unique online-offline activity hub and campaign designed to reach and re-engage our athletes who are isolated across Europe. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of Special Olympics basketball players dropped by over 16,000 from 62,069 to 45 944 and the number of coaches fell from 3,344 to 2,408.

The initiative is one more building block in the ‘We the 15’ campaign aimed at increasing disability visibility and inclusion. The mission of Faces of Basketball is to bring the spotlight onto the Special Olympics community, their talents, perseverance, with the clear message that the recovery from this terrible pandemic must include everyone, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable.

Petrisor Ionut Catalin, a basketball player with Special Olympics Romania, is just one of many who felt the damaging loss of connection with Special Olympics at the height of the pandemic. He says, “It was hard that I couldn't go out anymore, I didn't meet my friends at competitions and I didn't do sports anymore.” Valerie Geluykens and Tamara Medarts, a Unified Coaching Pair from Belgium, had a similar experience of isolation during lockdown. Valerie says, “We both missed basketball: being able to do sport, other than walking, biking or running… but also the team: as a player and as a coach. During Covid, the world got so much smaller.”

Special Olympics President and Managing Director, David Evangelista, adds, “The COVID pandemic has deepened the isolation and marginalization of our athletes and individuals with intellectual disabilities both globally and here in Europe Eurasia.  Many have lost a vital lifeline to sport.  Our Faces of Basketball provides a key platform to re-engage athletes in a way that is safe, sustainable and fun- blending physical play with virtual connection.” 

Faces of Basketball, supported by Lions Clubs International Foundation and Toyota, is a new and innovative way to re-engage athletes with intellectual disabilities who have drifted away from sports and a healthier lifestyle due to the pandemic. Crucially, it is designed for those who still cannot compete or train in person due to the threat of the pandemic. Among the features of Faces of Basketball are virtual basketball training delivered by Special Olympics athletes and coaches like Petrisor, Tamara, Valerie and others. With a range of content tailored for the current Covid-19 recovery reality, Faces of Basektball is available in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.

The platform will showcase, for the first time, up to 200 local, grassroots basketball events taking place across over 35 countries in Europe to mark European Basketball Week in 2021; provide online training videos by and for the athletes of Special Olympics; and allow athletes to create and share tailored basketball profile cards across on our ‘Hall of Fame’ and on social media.

To join, support and share, visit: www.facesofbasketball.com