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Football with the Special Olympics

BOOTHYPE finds out that they’re not so different from you and I.

It’s a 15 minute game of 5-a-side and Special Olympics Singapore (SOSG) Team 3 has been charged up all morning. They press high up from kick-off and score 30 seconds into the game. The team passes pretty triangles in the opposition half and is incessant in winning the ball back. You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a team that was coached by Jurgen Klopp.

The game ends 7-0 in favour of SOSG Team 3 which includes a scintillating solo goal by striker, Han Pin Yun, who collects the ball from the centre circle before taking on 2 defenders to score from the right side of midfield. It was a move out of the Eden Hazard and Leo Messi playbook – Pin Yun’s footballing idols.

Coaches from both teams encouraged the players to shake hands after the final whistle but the players were already on it, consoling their crestfallen opponents on a good game while Team 3 kept their celebrations muted out of respect. Almost immediately after, they quickly turn their focus onto the scouting the opposition of the next game.

This was not a Champions League tie but the first game of Play Inclusive 2019 organized by Special Olympics Singapore, SportCares and supported by the Ministry of Education. Most participants were those with intellectual disability while each team also included “Unified Partners” (athletes without intellectual disability). For the uninitiated, the Special Olympics is a non-profit organization that aims to empower those with intellectual disabilities through sports. Play Inclusive was set up to further assist their special athletes to foster relationships with the larger community through teaming up with Unified Partners in a competitive setting.

For a moment after the final whistle, I felt awe and shame in equal measure. Awe in seeing the high levels of sportsmanship these special athletes had in them. They were more gracious than most professionals I’ve seen on screen. Shame, from being surprised at how well they carried themselves. This came from a place of ignorance and a miniscule exposure to those with intellectual disability.

Pin Yun from the Special Olympics
Pin Yun gets involved during the team’s last briefing by the coaches.

You see, there’s still a stigma in Singapore about people with special needs, leading families to shy away from “exposing” their child from communities and society. This impairs his/her ability to develop social skills while the rest of society remains ignorant to them.

One such family member who has bucked the trend has been Raymond Han, Pin Yun’s dad, who has always used sports as a way to help his son develop cognitively and physically. “Growing up, I thought my son was too flimsy. I got him to pick up CCAs in school like running and Scouts to grow stronger. My son’s best friend, Damien, plays football with my son over the weekends and recommended for him to come play with him weekly with the Special Olympics,” said Raymond.

Pin Yun and his dad, Raymond, at Play Inclusive 2019
Pin Yun (L) with his dad, Raymond (R)

“Pin Yun’s soccer clinics in school (Pathlight) are very basic in their approach and we needed a place where he can learn more about football. If you want to learn football fundamentals, you have to sign up with an academy. All the coaches at Special Olympics are excellent in teaching game skills and an understanding of the game – and this is free for the community. I really appreciate that,” he added.

Raymond, who used to play semi-professional football, was also effusive in his feedback about the coaches that works with his son. “They are fantastic and for them to do this as volunteers is amazing. It’s not just a job for them, it’s a calling.”

And it is this experience that Pin Yun has started to come out of his shell and express himself with his friends. The striker said, “I like football because I’m always learning about new things and I can do so from watching TV. I play often as a striker and I love scoring goals. I try not to celebrate too hard as I don’t want to disrespect the opponent so I go back to focusing on the game and assisting my teammates.”

Sportsmanship is a big part of the Special Olympics curriculum.

Often a regular scorer during his weekend sessions with Special Olympics, Pin Yun had a memorable game recently when Juventus, Manchester United, Tottenham and Inter legends came by for a coaching clinic. “I played really well that day but I couldn’t score because Ledley King was marking me. He was so tall.”

Raymond is very fond of how joining the Special Olympics has impacted his son and the other kids who attend the weekly sessions. “It’s good for this group of children to have a sense of belonging. Some of them have trouble making friends so sports is a good way for them to make connections quickly – or at the least, come out of the house. Having Unified Partners help a lot too to build those friendships in the group.”

Unified Partners are a big part of the Special Olympics experience and it has helped some of them broaden their horizons when engaging with the special athletes. Rauqah and Syakira got involved with the Special Olympics as Unified Partners after their schools nominated them for a couple of programs, including a trip to Kuala Lumpur to play in a South East Asian tournament against other mixed (special + Unified) teams.

Syakira and Rauqah from the Special Olympics
Syakira (L) and Rauqah (R) are Unified Partners and participate in many of Special Olympics’ activities.

“There was a bit of fear at the start in communicating with the special athletes but we had no issues once we got to know them. At the start, some would show attitude and not listen to us but that’s a problem we face with friends in school too. So they were not too different. Some were shy at the start but now they won’t hesitate to say hello to us when they see us.”

Syakira added, “Now, Pin Yun would speak with us about the games he watches over the weekend, the goals he scored in him games and even about matters in his personal life.”

“It’s rare to get such an opportunity to work with the special needs community,” said Rauqah. And through that she’s learnt that perhaps it is the Unified Partners that have something to learn from this program. “I think the special athletes behave much better than we do! I thought special needs people are much noisier but it’s us who are behaving badly sometimes.”

Pin Yun from the Special Olympics
Pin Yun is always ready for a game in his adidas Nemeziz.

Reflecting back on Pin Yun’s attitude in the game, the girls were right in their observation. His calm demeanour, despite scoring a hat-trick and providing 2 assists, belied a steely determination to win at all odds. Decked out in his adidas Nemeziz Messi court shoes, he has been harping all week about winning the Play Inclusive tournament while preaching respect for the opposition.

His experiences in sports and school has inspired him to be a life skills coach after graduation while staying involved in football. His love for Chelsea FC has him aiming high.

The next Chelsea manager? Don’t bet against it.

“I want to be Chelsea manager one day. That game which we lost 4-0 to Manchester United, Chelsea should have scored 2 goals in the first half but Lampard didn’t coordinate the players well enough to score. And we were poor in the second half.”

And the first thing he’ll do as manager? “Make Frank Lampard my assistant.” Right on, Pin Yun. Right on.

A big thank you to the good people of Special Olympics Singapore for hosting us at Play Inclusive 2019. For more information on their programs, kindly visit their website at this link.

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