EDITOR'S DESK
It's About All of Us
  



 

Special Stars

The Special Olympics offers a broad stage for the athletes to
show what they can achieve and to encourage more to participate

By TANG YUANKAI

DISADVANTAGED BUT BEAUTIFUL: Qiao Meili hosts the opening ceremony for the Shanghai Invitational Tournament of the 2006 Special Olympic Games

Qiao Meili, leader of the world's special athletes

No one expected Qiao Meili, a Shanghai-born 17-year-old girl who couldn’t even tell the different colors at the age of seven, to become the “leader of the world’s special athletes.”

In Chinese, meili means beautiful, but Qiao’s life was anything but that. She suffered a trauma at birth, and the doctor told her father she could be saved but she might suffer from severe problems in the future.

Qiao’s mother, Yang Zhaodi, took care of the intellectually disabled girl at home, while the family was supported by her father, Qiao Zhonglin, who is handicapped and earned a monthly salary of only 1,000 yuan.

It took great effort to find a primary school that would accept Qiao. “She could write the numbers 1 and 2, but just could not write the number 3. I didn’t have the heart to see her taking such pains to try to put down the number 3,” her mother recalled.

Qiao had the lowest grades in her class and inevitably she became the laughingstock. She developed an inferiority complex and shut herself off from the outside world.

Later her parents had to transfer Qiao, whose IQ is below 40, to another school, where she had many mentally handicapped classmates. However, Qiao still did not know how to get along with them.

“But afterward I found there is no mockery and discrimination in this school. Teachers here are especially patient, and my classmates are all innocent and lovely,” Qiao said. She has particular praise for Cai Jiahuan, a teacher who changed her life.

Cai’s first impression of Qiao can be described in three words: unhappy, unapproachable and unbalanced. Cai often had intimate talks with the girl, helped her change her improper behavior and gradually led her to the world of the Special Olympics.

“I later realized that Cai designed a step-by-step program for me in order to let me see my own progress every day,” Qiao said.

Teachers also encouraged Qiao to be involved in various non-sporting activities. “I no longer feel that bad about myself as a result of these activities,” she said.

Last year at a summit meeting for the Eighth Special Olympics Summer Games in Nagano, Japan, Qiao was praised by former U.S. President Bill Clinton for her courage in speaking with him in English. Qiao also played the role of a reporter to cover the games.

“It was my first time as a reporter and I knew nothing about reporting at all,” Qiao said. “I’m glad Cai Jiahuan taught me how to gather material, interview people and write articles.”

Qiao stood out with her excellent achievements and was named the “leader of the world’s special athletes.”

Compared with three years ago she is a totally different person, with a confident smile, fluent expression and smooth speaking manner when being interviewed. She found her niche on the Special Olympics stage with the help of others.

“All hardship will be overcome. We want to live like normal people, assuming our responsibility and live happily,” she said.

Last year, Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics International Committee, visited Shanghai and met with Qiao and Cai. He called Qiao “the most excellent girl” and said Cai “is a great teacher as she cultivated such a great student.”

Qiao is about to graduate from school in two years and she wants to learn to be a baker. “My next wish would be eating the pastry made with your own hands,” Qiao’s mother said to her beautiful daughter.

Jia Sirui, world champion and social activist

A SPECIAL ACTIVIST Jia Sirui has her picture taken with volunteers of the Special Olympics

“I wish all the mentally disadvantaged children in the world would be taking part in the 2007 Shanghai Special Olympic Games,” Jia Sirui said to Chinese President Hu Jintao, who asked her what was on her mind when she became a world champion in the Special Olympics.

Jia, 21, is a jovial person. Her smiling face seems to tell anyone who meets her to take it easy and everything will be all right. “I found the meaning of my life in all kinds of activities concerning the Special Olympics. Like many other retarded children, I became more positive and outgoing through the joyful Olympics,” said Jia.

Jia became involved in the Special Olympics 10 years ago. Three years later, she participated in the 10th Special Olympics, winning a gold medal for the balance beam and a bronze for gymnastics.

Jia became intellectually disabled at the age of seven, when she fell down some steps while playing with her classmates. In 1992, her parents sent her to a “special” school in Beijing. On the first day of class, teachers there welcomed the students with a comforting smile.

Jia had a very flexible body so the gym teacher trained her to do gymnastics. The best age for learning gymnastics is around six or seven, but at the time Jia was 10, so it was more difficult for her to learn.

Not long before she became the world champion, Jia was awarded the title of “global envoy” and went to the Netherlands for a training program on behalf of the athletes in the Asia-Pacific region. She also began a career as an activist for the intellectually disabled.

In 2002, she lit the torch at the opening ceremony of the Third National Special Olympics held in Xi’an. The following September, Jia was chosen as Vice Chairperson of the China Association of Mentally Retarded People and their Families and Relatives.

Jia once told an autobiographical story during a lecture about how an intellectually disabled child got rid of feelings of inferiority, overcame obstacles and finally entered a normal social life. The touching one-hour lecture caught the attention of William Valentino, Bayer’s General Manager of Corporate Communica-tions for Greater China. Not long after that, Valentino offered the girl an opportunity to work at his company once a week.

Jia now speaks fluent English and Japanese. Discussing her future plans, she said she wants “to do something that’s good for society.” Not long ago she became a volunteer for the Special Olympics and she spoke about getting more mentally disadvantaged people to join the Special Olympics and blend into society.

Zhao Zengzeng, the new face of Special Olympics ads

ADVERTISING STAR: Zhao Zengzeng, the new face of the Special Olympics ads, receives a pair of shoes from basketball superstar Yao Ming as a gift

Advertisements with sports stars Yao Ming and Liu Xiang on them can be found everywhere in Shanghai. But nowadays, public-service ads with a new angelic, smiling face are emerging on every street. The face belongs to Zhao Zengzeng, an 18-year-old Special Olympics athlete who was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome when she was young.

She has a sweet smile!” said TV advertising director Yang Qingsheng, who promptly chose Zhao at an audition in Shanghai. The filming of television spots went on for several days, and Zhao had to do many takes to meet the director’s standards, but she never complained. “I know this is for the benefit of the Special Olympics; it’s an honor to me.”

Zhao has an unfortunate family background: her father died when she was young and her mother is unemployed. Zhao used to be bad tempered and was silent most of the time. But after she participated in the Special Olympics four years ago, she began to change. Her temper improved and she became more outgoing. Though she was not that talented in sports, she worked hard in training. “She is trying to do her best. No matter what the results are, she already knows how to get joy and pleasure out of the games,” one of her coaches said.

Zhao can handle her daily life and helps her mother with household chores like cooking, washing dishes and cleaning the floor. “To have a job and support my mother, this is my future plan,” she said.