Home Month and Year February 2024 Calgary to Host the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games

Calgary to Host the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games

Games Co-Chairs Cheryl Bernard and François Poirier Encourage Calgarians to Show Support

Games Co-Chairs Cheryl Bernard and François Poirier. Photo source: Riverwood Photography.

The first Special Olympics competition was held in Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 20, 1968. The one-day event, spearheaded by Kennedy Foundation director Eunice Kennedy Shriver, included 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, from both the U.S. and Canada, competing in over 200 challenging events such as swimming, floor hockey and track and field.

The adjective ‘special’ was chosen by Shriver as a way to define the unique gifts of adults and children with intellectual disabilities; the goal of the Games was to put a bright and public spotlight on ability, rather than disability.

For many athletes, it was the first time they had heard the sound of applause, which was given in a celebration of courage and in the spirit of inclusion. Those first games are described as “daybreak” – the early stirring of a global movement for people with intellectual disabilities.

Fifty-five years later, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports movement for people with intellectual disabilities, with more than 5 million athletes in 174 countries. The Special Olympics World Games are held every two years, alternating between summer and winter. The next World Winter Games will be held in Torino, Italy, in March 2025.

In advance of those World Games, the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games will take place in Calgary from February 27 to March 2. Over 800 athletes from all over the country will converge on this city to compete in eight sports with the goal of achieving personal bests, and in some cases, the opportunity to be named to Special Olympics Team Canada.

“Special Olympics is just that, it’s special,” says Cheryl Bernard, co-chair of the Games organizing committee. Bernard is well-known in the Canadian sporting world: a curler, she won silver at the 2010 Winter Olympics and is now the president and CEO of the Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. “To showcase these athletes on the world stage at home here in Calgary was a big thing for me. We don’t always get to see these athletes and really, they are teachers to all of us. When you watch them, you can really see what acceptance and inclusion mean.”

Bernard’s co-chair for the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games is François Poirier, president and CEO of TC Energy.

The Opening Ceremony presented by the Calgary Flames Foundation will be held at Stampede Park, followed by competitions in five-pin bowling, alpine skiing, cross country skiing, curling, figure skating, floor hockey, snowshoeing and speedskating. The Closing Ceremony on March 2 will also take place at Stampede Park.

Bernard applauds the many local venues – including The Bowling Depot, Confederation Park Golf Course, WinSport, the North Hill Curling Club, Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, Maple Ridge Golf Course and the Olympic Oval – for stepping up to make their facilities available for the events, and for rising to the occasion by conducting barrier-free accessibility audits, sending a resounding message of inclusion.

“The community venues really wanted to support the Games,” she says.

She encourages all Calgarians to come out and participate in the Games, as spectators or donors. “You’re in for a treat and you’ll be changed if it’s your first time,” she predicts. “For many people who are coming back to support these Games as volunteers, they just want to continue to showcase these athletes.”

Indeed, volunteers – 1,500 of them – are a key driver to the Games. They have not been hard to come by.

“I’m not at all surprised as to how Calgary has embraced the Games,” Poirier says. “I’m a transplant to this city eight or nine years ago, and it’s just the giving spirit of the city of Calgary. The community is showing itself yet again in the context of these Games.”

For Poirier and TC Energy, involvement with the Games was a great privilege. “The purpose of a company has evolved,” he reflects. “Traditionally it was shareholder value and profitability, but companies now have a broader responsibility. We must demonstrate a set of values that our employees – our greatest asset – can align with. The Special Olympics are about inclusion, innovation and strong support for the community, and these are all very much aligned with our values at TC Energy. I couldn’t think of a better opportunity for me as the leader of the company to get involved and lead by example and show our employees and the community how important this is.”

As a Premium Sponsor of the Games, TC Energy chose the volunteer program as its signature event throughout the Games. “It aligns with our values of being community minded,” Poirier notes. “We made a commitment that 10 per cent of the total 1,500 volunteers for the Games would consist of TC Energy employees. We have not only met but already exceeded that goal, with more than 200 of our dedicated employees having signed up to volunteer at the Games. It’s just a win-win on all sides and I couldn’t be more proud of the way our company has stepped up.”

Many local companies, organizations and governments have also generously donated to the Games, including the Calgary Flames Foundation, RBC, Blakes, BMO, Cenovus Energy, CIBC, Evans Hunt, Pembina, Safeway, TD Bank, the City of Calgary Golf, EY, Scotiabank, National Post, Graffiti Signs, Black Diamond Group, Tourism Calgary, City of Calgary, Calgary Arts Development and the governments of Alberta and Canada.

“Blakes is sponsoring curling,” Poirier explains. “We asked them for a monetary contribution and they stepped up for that full amount, but also offered pro bono legal work to Games staff and made personal donations from the partners of the firm. They went above and beyond. And again, it was conversations around engaging employees and aligning their firm’s values around inclusion and supporting the community.”

Being ‘dry’ Games – alcohol is not served or brought into any of the events – local Burwood Distillery has stepped up to create and provide a “nojito” (a non-alcoholic mojito) in support. Launched in ‘dry January,’ the nojito is sold in local Safeways with proceeds going to the Games.

“Again, it’s those small community partners who come out of the woodwork to do something and help,” marvels Bernard. “It amazes me when community comes together like this.”

To further the lasting impact the Games will have on the community, a Legacy Program was launched last October, with an employment initiative to make Calgary, Alberta and Canada more inclusive for persons with an intellectual or developmental disability. The new disability-inclusive employment initiative provides opportunities for employers to work with Goodwill Industries of Alberta via their Employer Inclusion Accelerator (EIA) program.

“The program is supported by a couple of different organizations to help companies prepare and make sure that it’s a successful experience both for the company and the individuals,” Poirier explains.

Tourism Calgary and TC Energy are both working with Goodwill via the EIA Program to ensure disability-inclusive employment programs are maintained within their organizations. “We’re starting by hiring one person in Calgary with the ambition to broaden the program across the entire company,” he says. “And I have to tell you, I have gotten way more out of this experience than I’ve given, and the Games haven’t even started yet! It’s because of the sincerity, the enthusiasm, the honesty and the integrity of every athlete I’ve met on my own personal journey to learn what this is all about.”

Included among these individuals are Athlete Ambassadors, who attend and speak at events in the lead up to the Games. One Ambassador, Leonka, is on the Executive Committee for the Games. “She contributes in all aspects of our decisions,” Poirier explains. “Our mission here is to make this the experience of a lifetime for the athletes and their families. Leonka has participated in Special Olympics for 21 years, so she has a unique perspective and experience to make sure we’re doing things the right way.”

“If we’re going to walk the talk of inclusion, we don’t just put these Games on for them, we put these Games on with them,” agrees Bernard. “We had a lightbulb moment when we were all meeting about the Olympic cauldron design, trying to decide which to use, and it was Leonka who spoke up and mentioned the key things that are important. And right away we all went, ‘OK, decision’s made.’ When you see inclusion in action you understand that by bringing so many different people with different abilities and experiences together, you get the very best of everything.”

To engage local children, the Calgary 2024 School Program presented by RBC was also launched, aiming to help over 1,000 youth in grades four through six learn about disability and inclusion.

A member of the board of Tourism Calgary, which was instrumental in the bidding process for the Games, Bernard notes the impact the Games will have on the city, including approximately $10.7 million into the local economy: “There’s going to be over 4,000 people – athletes, coaches, families and support groups – coming to Calgary. One hundred per cent of the proceeds from the Games goes back into the community through the Legacy Fund. Seventy per cent stays right here and 30 per cent goes to Special Olympic Canada for their national programs. It’s a really good split for us.”

All Calgarians are encouraged to show their support for the Games at the Safeway’s Champions Celebration on March 2 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Olympic Plaza. The free event for the whole family will include a pancake breakfast, fun prize giveaways and on-ice performances, while cheering on the medalists as they take the podium for an awards presentation.

Bernard also notes donations to the Games can be made on the website and are very much appreciated.

A showcase of the very best of both the intellectual disability sport community and the city, the Games are sure to be an unforgettable event, with lasting impacts for many years to come. All Calgarians should support.