Oleksandr Khorunzhak is a 21-year-old Special Olympics athlete from Ukraine who is passionate about basketball. He has Down Syndrome.
He took to the sport from a very early age but when he tried to play with the neighbours in his yard they would make fun of him and wouldn’t give him a chance to play. So it was up to his mother to become his first playmate and his first coach. In 2006, Special Olympics Ukraine opened a regional office in their town of Kherson. Oleksandr was one of the first to register in basketball. At last, he had the opportunity to train with an experienced coach who Oleksandr endearingly calls Uncle Valery.
Since then Oleksandr has been consistently training with Special Olympics and plays on the Special Olympics Ukraine Unified Basketball team. (Unified teams are where people with intellectual disabilities - the ‘athletes’ - train and compete on the same team as people without intellectual disabilities - their ‘partners’). Oleksandr has also received a trophy from the Ukraine National Basketball Federation for his achievement in the game. Basketball continues to grow momentum within the Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia movement with 53,000 registered players. Special Olympics has partnered with FIBA Europe to open more opportunities in basketball for people with intellectual disabilities. Euroleague, Europe’s premier basketball competition, pledged their support of Special Olympics during their 2009-10 season to help the movement reach more athletes through basketball. Special Olympics is often the only place where people with intellectual disabilities can participate in their communities and develop belief in themselves through training and competing in sports. Many live lives of neglect and isolation, hidden away or socially excluded from full participation in schools or society. Inclusion in sports such as basketball provides a gateway to empowerment, competence, acceptance and joy.
Under the slogan ‘Basketball for Everyone’, Euroleague committed to promote the Special Olympics movement during the 2009/10 season.
As part of the partnership, a total of 20 Euroleague basketball games and the Final Four were dedicated to Special Olympics - with clubs, players, coaches and referees all playing their part.
"The Euroleague feels a duty to use the popularity and visibility of our teams, players and league to support those who truly need it," explains Jordi Bertomeu, Euroleague Basketball CEO. "There are millions of people with an intellectual disability in Europe and yet they are often a forgotten group. We need to transform the way communities think and act towards people with disabilities."
Thanks to the initiative taken by Euroleague Basketball, an unprecedented number of national basketball federations and professional Euroleague clubs partnered with their local Special Olympics programme during European Basketball Week in December 2009 to make it the most successful ever, with more than 200 events taking place across the region including tournaments, clinics and invitationals. Most have stayed involved with the local Special Olympics programme.
"Through our partnership with Euroleague, we are confident that we will reach our goal of 55,000 registered basketball players by 2011," says Mary Davis, Managing Director of Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia. "Basketball is a powerful means to instill the values of acceptance, dignity and inclusion to communities all over Europe.
"We invite everyone to be a fan of Special Olympics and get involved - volunteer, donate, coach or compete," Davis added. "You can change a life and you know what, it will change your life also!"