Last week, 6,500 athletes from 165 nations traveled to Los Angeles to compete in the 2015 Special Olympic World Summer Games.
“These Games change the lives of people around the world who are mistreated and excluded because they’re ‘different,’” Patrick McClenahan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Games Organizing Committee, said in a statement.
Not as widely known is the fact that many of the Special Olympics athletes do not have access to pristine health care.
The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Program, officially organized in 1997 to promote public health and serve those with intellectual disabilities, set up a makeshift medical clinic to provide free health care to athletes throughout the week.
Doctors, dentists and other health care professionals performed eye, ear and foot exams, as well as other health checkups in tents and vans located on campus at the University of Southern California.
“About 24 percent [of the Special Olympic athletes] wear shoes that are too small—and they compete in those shoes,” Healthy Athletes Program Director Zabi Mansoory told the Associated Press. “About one out of every five or six athletes is coming in with dental pain.”
Athletes had their teeth cleaned and pulled, and in several instances even root canals were performed. “You have oral pain, and you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, it takes over your whole life,” Dr. Richard Mungo, who directs the dental clinic tent at the Olympics, told the Associated Press.
With translators on hand to break any language barriers between athletes and doctors, this year’s free clinic opened on July 26. On that day alone, 977 athletes were treated; the next day, 1,247 athletes were treated, exceeding the 1,600 athletes that were treated at the Special Olympics held in Korea four years ago. Organizers hoped to treat all 6,500 athletes this year.
Athletes were given hearing aids, eyeglasses, and other items that had been donated by health care companies. Take-home gift bags filled with items like electric toothbrushes and new sneakers were provided.
Event organizers say that some of the Special Olympics athletes they meet have never been examined by any kind of doctor before.
Since its founding, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes has provided more than 1.6 million free health examinations that have been conducted in more than 130 countries.
A few of the athletes left this year’s Games with the ability to hear for the very first time.
“On Sunday [July 26], 21 athletes received hearing aids for the first time in their lives,” John Ohanesian, Director of Medical Services for the 2015 Special Olympics, told the Associated Press. “Including three who couldn’t hear at all until they got the hearing aids.”
A basketball player from India, born without ear canals, was one of the athletes treated. Dennis Van Vliet, an audiologist, told the Associated Press that he fit the basketball player’s head with a device that transmits inner ear vibrations as sound to the brain.
“She could hear right away,” he said.
Other athletes were tested by physical therapists on their strength, endurance and flexibility.
“This has been really good for our athletes. Getting glasses [is] a big problem for our people, and now they have them,” Ivory Coast swim team coach Akani Brou told the Associated Press. “And after this, when we leave, we know they’ll be really healthy.”