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 July 11 , 2003 

Winners: Armenians participate in Special Olympics for first time

The Armenian team left Dublin with five medals.

Four Armenians were among 7,000 mentally impaired athletes who recently participated in the Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland.

The games were held June 21-29, with 159 countries entered including Armenia's first-ever delegation.

Armenia's team was: Sergey Sahakyan, 17; Anna Bulghadaryan, 14; Karine Gasparyan, 19; and Vahan Babayan, 20. The Olympians returned with one gold medal, three silver and one bronze.

But the real achievement might simply have been in going there.

"Our children returned with pretty good results and we are happy for our victory," says the leader of the Special Olympics program in Armenia, Artak Israelyan. "However, the core meaning of this movement is participation and this was our supreme victory."

While in Armenia it is still considered shameful to be disabled and often parents keep such children out of the public eye, the nine days in Ireland put the Armenian young people in a spotlight.

"I couldn't hold my emotions when seeing the special attention paid to the disabled," Israelyan says. "One should understand that these children visit a very limited number of places in their own town in their whole lives. They couldn't believe they were standing in the 70,000-seat packed stadium in Dublin, where such world stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mohammed Ali and Nelson Mandela were present for the opening ceremony."

While in Dublin, Israelyan asked Karine (who is from Kapan) whether she would like to live in such a place.

"For a moment I thought I would," the teenager replied. "But when I realized that I will be enjoying everything here and my friends in Kapan will not, this wish disappeared."

The excitement of the trip was so great Israelyan feared it would interfere with the athletes' performance.

"They were so excited they weren't able to sleep at night," Israelyan says. "I kept telling them to go to sleep, because the next day was going to be even more promising."

The excitement had a different effect on Vahan Babayan, as Isrealyan says he became homesick and could not perform at his best and was the only Armenian to not earn a medal. Still, he got the rare chance to be among his peers in an accepting environment.
Armenia's first entry to Special Olympics included four athletes.

"We have to involve as many disabled from Armenia as possible in such events, because this improves their mental abilities," Israelyan says.

At present, Armenia doesn't have official statistics regarding its mentally disabled. Instead, there are some researches conducted by the Special Olympics movement in Armenia, and according to them there are around 100 disabled children in every region of the Republic, and in Yerevan their number exceeds 600.

"Of course this isn't a final figure, because we are convinced there are parents who according to the Armenian mentality hide such children both from their relatives and from the society," Israelyan says. "Our goal is to find those people and make them proper members of society."

Armenia, as other republics of the former Soviet Union, first was allowed to participate in the Special Olympics in 1990. The Government of Armenia paid for the special athletes' trip to Dublin. Israelyan is hopeful the program will continue through grants. Though this was Armenia's first participation, neighboring countries Azerbaijan and Georgia have been in the Games regularly. This year Georgia sent 45 athletes and Azerbaijan, 60.

Progress is being made in Armenia for its disabled. Today there are special athletic groups functioning in Yerevan, Kapan and Vanadzor. And Armenia has a football team, which participated in regional competition in Georgia in April.

"It has been difficult, but we have managed to budge the wagon," Israelyan says. "In the beginning it seemed people here don't realize the importance of the problem. But now I would say the opposite. There are many caring people volunteering for the organization and sharing their knowledge."

The Special Olympics Winter Games will take place in Nagano, Japan in 2005, and Armenia has already applied.

"We will try to avoid repetitions and take other athletes there, because they are also impatient to participate in this event," Israelyan says. "The more people experience this joy, the more involvement we have."

According to Agnes
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Winners: Armenians participate in Special Olympics for first time

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  Photos of the week
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The National Chamber Orchestra made a tour of Karabakh last weekend, including an open-air performance at the College of Applied Sciences in Shushi. THe Orchestra is back from a recent tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg.



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