Winter Games for the mentally handicapped: Felix Neureuther on Special Olympics: “This is still about the essence of sport”


Winter Games for the mentally handicapped: Felix Neureuther on Special Olympics: “This is still about the essence of sport”

Mr. Neureuther, what connects you with the Winter Games for people with mental and multiple disabilities? In 2013, I was a forerunner in a Special Olympics ski race in my hometown of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The atmosphere at Gudiberg was unique. I've never been so cheered on in my career as I was there. Since then, the connection has not been broken, especially since my father and mother had been involved in the Special Olympics for many years.

Were you so celebrated by the audience because you are the celebrity Felix Neureuther, the World Cup rider and son of Christian Neureuther and Rosi Mittermaier? Names don't play a big role at the Special Olympics. But it's fun. During my preliminary run, I deliberately turned around before the last gate and drove backwards to the finish. This was obviously well received by the athletes because they tried to imitate it. I then had to make every effort to make it clear to the participants at the start not to do exactly that.

You would probably have received applause elsewhere for this little circus act. What exactly makes the atmosphere at the Special Olympics so special? Here, people are also happy about each other's achievements. The dogged and tense nature of focusing only on yourself that you know from professional sports doesn't exist. It's a togetherness. Values ​​that also distinguished the Olympic Movement in its early days are lived here. Fairness, respect for your opponent, joy in your own actions.

Something similar has been said for a long time about the Paralympics, the games for the physically disabled: that things are still decent there, that the Paralympics are an island in an otherwise morally rotten sports world. But then more and more money flowed into sports for the disabled - and false certificates were issued, athletes sat in wheelchairs who actually didn't need one, and there was doping and manipulation. A development that has not been stopped to this day. That is very unfortunate, but I don't see this danger with the Special Olympics. Nobody is driven by money here. It's actually just about the matter, about the essence of the sport. Of course it's also about success, although the shared experience is just as important. It is a very small movement, but an all the more valuable one.

You skied in the Ski World Cup for 16 years, at the highest level. For you, sport always meant competitive sport. How do you perceive the Special Olympics? Is there also this idea of ​​performance? Of course, the people who start there also want to win. Some people invest a lot of time and effort in training, but not everyone is able to do this in their environment. It also depends on the respective degree of disability. Otherwise, they are wonderful normal athletes. Young, ambitious people who want to achieve something in life.

In your opinion, what is the state of inclusion of mentally disabled people in Germany? There are still too many hurdles that make it difficult for these people to participate in social life. There are problems, especially when it comes to integration into the labor market. This requires courage and energy from society, and this is already happening in individual lighthouse projects.

Can you give an example? I saw a program with Tim Mälzer (chef and restaurateur from Hamburg, editor's note). It was about an inn that he ran and where many disabled people worked. I thought it was great. It showed me that inclusion doesn't have to remain an idea that everyone thinks is great, but only a few put into practice.

How is it in sports? What barriers are there? Last year I was a guest at the Special Olympics in Berlin. The opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium was great, really touching. The Federal President and many other politicians sat in the official gallery. There was a reception in the evening. I wasn't invited, but athlete spokesperson Mehtap Özgül was, who I accompanied that day. After a few minutes, Mehtap came back out to the entrance. She didn't feel comfortable there, she told me. There were a lot of men in suits standing there, but none of them would talk to her. She is lonely there. I thought that was crazy: giving a reception in honor of Special Olympics athletes where the athletes themselves get lost. Other nations do it better. The Americans, for example.

What's different? They're more relaxed and approachable. I can remember an American politician's opening speech at the Special Olympics, which was so touching that an athlete immediately threw his arms around him. No security intervened or anything. And the politician wasn't uncomfortable, he hugged the athlete to him. That was a big moment. I would also like moments like that for the games in Thuringia.

RTL Deutschland is part of the media alliance of the Special Olympics National Games Thuringia. At Germany's largest inclusive winter sports event, around 900 athletes will compete in ten sports from January 29th to February 2nd, 2024.

Transparency note: The star is part of RTL Deutschland.