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Kadena Special Olympics’ return brings communities together

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sebastian Romawac and Airman 1st Class Tylir Meyer
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

The Kadena Special Olympics returned after a six year hiatus, uniting service members and local communities through competition at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Dec. 9, 2023.

The Kadena Special Olympics is a one-day sporting and entertainment event bringing competition and recognition to Okinawan and American athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities.

“The fact that we see so many athletes, their families, volunteers from the U.S. military community and local communities of Okinawa is a testament to the importance and impact these games have had,” said Mr. Raymond Greene, the U.S. Embassy Japan Deputy Chief of Mission.

Since its inception in 1968, the Special Olympics has been the world’s largest sports organization for people with disabilities. Kadena first hosted a Special Olympics event in 2000, becoming an avenue for U.S. and Okinawan communities to stand together in support of people with disabilities.

According to Greene, the Special Olympics symbolizes changing attitudes to become a more understanding and accepting society.

“(It’s) about building societies to include the values and abilities of all people. A society that celebrates the challenges that the stars of today’s event, the athletes, have overcome to be here today,” said Greene.

Roughly 70 athletes competed in a variety of track-and-field events, such as wheelchair events and the 30, 50 and 100-meter dashes, as well as soccer and basketball.

The games provide invaluable positive reinforcement, confirmation, confidence and instill positivity for all the athletes, according to U.S. Air Force Maj. Rahn Lassiter, 18th Contracting Squadron director of operations and KSO project officer.

“It’s one of the few times in modern life where friends, family, neighbors and complete strangers can come together and drop their differences,” said Lassiter. “It's a judgment free environment full of support, and even more heart.”

Over 450 volunteers from the Department of Defense community, Japan Air Self Defense Force, and local communities worked to ensure the success of the event over a six-month period. The volunteers helped in a variety of duties including translation, food preparation, logistical and medical support, security and acting as ‘athlete buddies’.

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Brandon Wolfgang, 18th Wing command chief, expressed that many of the volunteers were excited to be able to bring the Special Olympics back to Kadena after the six-year hiatus and create a memorable experience for the athletes.

“I have a special connection with this event from ten years ago,” said Wolfgang. “I think from that aspect, a lot of our members get a lot of enjoyment out of just the connection with the local community, interacting with the athletes and helping them through the events.

As the day went on, every athlete displayed tremendous effort. They wore their medals with smiles beaming proudly at everything they had accomplished, something that did not go unnoticed by Chatan Town’s Mayor, Masashi Toguchi, who took note of and congratulated the athletes for.

During the closing ceremony, Toguchi stated, “I hope this event enhances the understanding of the Special Olympics, promotes the social participation of individuals with disabilities and contributes to a society where everyone can live together with pride and dignity.”