Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1995 (3.3)
Pages 16-20

Special Olympics
World Games, 1995

Azerbaijan's Team Comes To The U.S.

Story and Photos by Markanthony Izzo

Athletic competitions tend to publicize wins and losses, facts and figures, names of the victors and the vanquished. But the 1995 Special Olympics World Games tell a different story. Special Olympics was created to provide an opportunity for people dealing with mental retardation to participate and compete with each other in sports. As such, the Games are far more concerned with the effort and processes in playing rather than who walks off with gold medals. Nevertheless, there are some amazing athletic performances.

But at the World Games every four years, there's the added international dimension when West and East, North and South all come together. This year's games took place at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, July 1-9. Approximately 7,000 athletes came from 143 countries. Azerbaijan came, too.

Four days before the Games began, the small town of Derby, Connecticut (population 9,000) finally got what they had been waiting two years for. The Azerbaijan Team had arrived in town and Derby was playing host to their 28 athletes and ten coaches. It was all part of the Host Town Program in which each city and town in Connecticut had been assigned a different country in order to provide four days of hospitality and adjustment for the athletes prior to the Games.

In Derby, Mike Kelleher, member of the Knights of Columbus, had played one of the major roles in organizing volunteers in the months that preceded the event. To raise money to cover expenses while the team stayed in Derby, adults prepared ziti pasta dinners (a popular Italian dish used as a fund-raiser in the region) and pancake breakfasts. Kids from the grammar schools collected pennies-70,000 of them.

It was amazing how everyone cooperated to sponsor athletes from Azerbaijan, a country that had been part of the Soviet Union and which, not so long ago, had been perceived as our number one national enemy.

Actually, no one quite knew what to expect from the Azerbaijani team. What would they look like? How would athletes act who suffer from mental retardation? Would we be able to communicate? What would they think of America? For most of us in Derby, we had just learned how to pronounce "Azerbaijan" and locate it on the map. Everyone was full of anticipation.

Visit in Derby
As hosts, we arranged accommodation and meals as well as scheduled times and locations for practice. We organized for them to stay at Trumbull Marriott and made the rounds for meals at Burger King, McDonald's, Connie's Family Restaurant, Naunie's Lite Cooking and other restaurants as well as Heavenly Donuts and Scoop Deck Ice Cream.

In addition to their practices and workouts, we scheduled some fun, too. We thought they would like to see a baseball game only to learn that they preferred an afternoon at nearby Quassy Amusement Park. We organized a "shop-till-you-drop" afternoon with jeans, sneakers, clothes and souvenirs for everyone. It seems like everybody wanted to give them T-shirts. And a State Representative presented the Team with a flag that had flown over the White House.

All in all, we managed pretty well given that we had quite a language barrier. One of the first differences we discovered was that Azerbaijanis didn't like ice in their drinks. Once after packing cokes under ice all day, we ended up soaking the cans in warm water just so they wouldn't be too cold for our guests.

On one of the first days, the team headed off to Derby City Hall to see the Olympic Torch Run. Just as the Torch Runners approached, the town band played both Azerbaijani and Olympic music. Then with Torch in Hand, the Torch Bearer went around shaking hands of Azerbaijan's team members, and Mayor Alan Schlesinger bestowed upon everyone Honorary Citizenship.

Mental Retardation
It was at a picnic one afternoon that some of us got our first chance to meet Shahin (Shah-HEEN) Aliyev, the head of Azerbaijan's delegation. With the translation assistance of David Fattahi, an Azerbaijani from Iran, who lives in our area, we were able to communicate and learn of Shahin's ideas and impressions. We had already affectionately nicknamed him, "Boss", when it turned out that some of the committee members had difficulty pronouncing his name.

A lot of us had not been around people with mental retardation before. Some of us wondered why so many of the athletes didn't look mentally retarded. But Shahin explained that retardation is not always evident except in oj20bvious cases like Down's Syndrome. "There is no specific 'look' that signifies mental retardation."

He pointed out that even the way we phrase our language can effect our attitude toward people who are coping with these handicaps. He urged us to try to think of them as "people who have mental retardation" rather than "mentally retarded people."

The idea of protecting the handicapped was established by President John F. Kennedy. The Special Olympics grew out of a movement back in the 1960s which received special impetus from the President's sister, Eunice, and her husband, Sergeant Shriver. The Special Olympics Program was established in the Azerbaijan Republic only four years ago. Already it has become a very successful program for athletes as well as their families and friends.

Breaking Barriers
The people of Derby held the highest admiration for the Azerbaijani coaches and athletes. The townspeople opened their hearts to the Azeri Delegation and the Derby citizens admittedly were enriched by the experience. Everywhere the team members went, they were greeted with smiles and signs of welcome. "Hopefully, events such as this one," said Tom Fahy, a coach from Derby High School, "will breakdown the isolation and ethnocentric attitudes that have for so long permeated this incredibly small world."

At the end of the four-day stay, a bus arrived to take the Team to the Special Olympic Games site. It was a sad moment for all of us. Azerbaijanis had come to our town as strangers but left as good friends.

Opening Ceremonies
July 1st marked the Opening Ceremonies. Yale University Stadium was packed. I, myself had taken off several days from work just to follow the team and capture the events with my camera.
Because I was able to maneuver my way up close when the athletes entered and marched around the field, members from Azerbaijan's team caught sight of me as they passed. I don't know who was more excited! It must have been special for them to see someone they knew among 80,000 strangers. I know it was for me.

The Azerbaijan Team had wonderful seats for the show-right up front. President and Mrs. Clinton were there as well as numerous other celebrities and movie stars. You could feel the rush of emotion when the Torch was carried into the Stadium and the cauldron lit against the dark night. "Let the Games begin," and they did.

The Azerbaijan Team made a fine showing at the eight days of games that followed. Of the total 19 sports categories, Azerbaijan participated in five; with four athletes in weight lifting, eight in running, four in table tennis, another four in swimming, and eight in the basketball competition.

Gold Medals for Azerbaijan
Shahin Aliyev had promised to bring home the gold for Azerbaijan. And he sure did. The Azerbaijani team won 74 medals: 30 gold, 22 silver, and 22 bronze. As a comparison, the Turkish team won two gold while the Ukrainians took seven. Even the Russian team which had about twice as many athletes as Azerbaijan, ended up with about the same results. At the conclusion of the Games, Azerbaijan ranked sixth among 143 countries.

More Valuable than Gold Medals
But for Coach Tom Fahy, it wasn't the awards that made the deepest impression. When school opens this fall, he says he'll have a new standard by which to challenge his athletes. Fahy attended several of the events that Azerbaijan participated in. He tells how during the final running event in the Pentathlon after five days of grueling competition, the race for second place was decided at the finish line by what looked like one-tenth of a second. The woman who trailed had overcome a 20-yard difference at the final turn. Just as she crossed the finish line, she collapsed. It took a medical team to revive her.

"If we would exhibit the determination of this athlete, the world would be a much better place to live in," observed Fahy, who has been involved with athletics for nearly 50 years. "As a coach, you ask your players for two things at the beginning of each season. You ask for determination and effort. I now have a new benchmark by which to measure 100% effort."

Anthony Izzo lives in Derby, Connecticut. When the Azerbaijan team came to town, he took off from work and followed them around, capturing their visit and athletic performances with his camera. As a gesture of friendship, he prepared souvenir albums with hundreds of photos (28 laser-printed pages worth) which he gave each member of Azerbaijan's team.

From Azerbaijan International (3.3) Autumn 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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