Learn About Healthy Athletes

Special Olympics Southern California athlete Paul Hoffman gets a vision exam from volunteer optometrist Catherine Heyman.

We are all in favor of eliminating unnecessary suffering. Poverty and famine have received billions in aid over the years. What if you could help 200 million people worldwide who suffer needlessly from chronic pain and disease, blindness and hearing loss, shortened life span, depression and suicide?

300 x 200 Golisano Clinton Tim Athletes

Philanthropist Tom Golisano joins former President Clinton, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver and four Special Olympics athletes – Loretta Claiborne from Pennsylvania, USA; Deon Namiseb from Namibia; Dustin Plunkett from California, USA; and Ioana Cioban from Romania – to mark Golisano's commitment of $12 million to the Healthy Athletes program.

Healthy Athletes

At more than 1.2 million free health screening clinics in more than 100 countries, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program offers health services and information to athletes in dire need. In the process, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.

That record of success and benefit led United States businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano to commit $12 million to expand Special Olympics’ health-related services and launch a new Healthy Communities initiative. The donation was announced by former U.S. President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative event in New York City on 23 September.


300 x 200 Tom Golisano at lectern

U.S. businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano as he announces his $12 million commitment to Special Olympics.

Healthy Communities

The new initiative will take the principles of the Healthy Athletes program but expand them from a series of single events to a steady presence in the lives of our athletes with intellectual disabilities and their families. Special Olympics has major offices in 170 countries around the world. Healthy Communities will be launched in seven countries (Mexico, Peru, Romania, Malawi, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand) and six states in the U.S. (Arizona, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Wisconsin and New York). Healthy Athletes has provided free health screenings and products to athletes for 15 years. See the press release for more details.


Did You Know?

  • Despite a mistaken belief that people with intellectual disabilities receive the same or better health care than others, they typically receive sub-standard care, or virtually no health care at all. 
  • Healthy Athletes has the world's largest database of health data for people with intellectual disabilities. 
  • Through Healthy Athletes, more than 100,000 health care professionals have been trained to treat people with intellectual disabilities. These health care professionals provide improved care to millions. 
  • Special Olympics has given out more than 90,000 pairs of prescription eyeglasses to athletes who needed them.

"I Can See the the Sun!"

Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy with an intellectual disability and next to no vision, is one example. While volunteering at Healthy Athletes, a doctor realized Moise had been blinded by cataracts. He was referred for a simple operation, and Moise left his appointment with restored sight. He saw his father for the first time. “I can see." He grabbed his father’s hand. “Hey! Dad, I didn’t know you are that tall!”

Miracles like Moise’s happen at every screening. A volunteer dentist from California, USA saved athlete Dustin Plunkett's life by finding his mouth cancer. Mariam Zakhary of Egypt, fitted with a hearing aid, heard her language and her coach for the first time in her life. Stories like Mariam’s are inspiring nations like Egypt to expand their offerings to athletes. All Special Olympics Egypt athletes now receive medical exams and follow-up care.


Miracles at Every Turn

Healthy Athletes currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry).

Officially launched in 1997, Healthy Athletes organizes its events in a welcoming, fun environment. Its screenings educate athletes on healthy lifestyle choices and identify problems that may need additional follow-up.

Revealing Lack of Care

By listening to athletes at events and conducting research over many years, Special Olympics leaders became aware of the lack of quality health care for people with intellectual disabilities and found it unacceptable. We found that people with intellectual disabilities have a 40 percent greater risk for health issues, and that health care professionals are not trained in or experienced with caring for people with intellectual disabilities.

Extending Our Reach

Called into action, we began to explore ways to help using Special Olympics’ unique global reach and access to people with intellectual disabilities. The result was the launch of the Healthy Athletes® initiative in 1997. Today, Healthy Athletes provides health screenings free of charge at Special Olympics competitions. Offered in a welcoming, fun environment, these screenings educate athletes on healthy lifestyle choices and identify problems that may need additional follow-up.


Healthy Athletes currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry). (Learn more about all these on the Special Olympics Resources site for Healthy Athletes.)

Volunteers Providing Miracles

Through a global team of health-care volunteers, Healthy Athletes works to improve access and health care for Special Olympics athletes; make referrals to local health practitioners when appropriate; train health care professionals and students about the needs and care of people with intellectual disabilities; collect, analyze and dessiminate data on the health status and needs of people with intellectual disabilities; and advocate for improved health policies and programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

Healthy Athletes' influence is evident with more than 120,000 healthcare professionals trained, free health screenings provided to more than 1.2 million athletes, and 90,000 free pairs of eyeglasses given to athletes. And Healthy Athletes continues to grow each year with help from a global network of volunteers, in-kind donations and other financial support.

For more information on Healthy Athletes, contact Lynn Erickson, Manager of Health Communications, at +1 (202) 824 0247 or lerickson@specialolympics.org.

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