“The most important thing in Special Olympics is to find good leadership which is the key to success. We don’t just open programmes and that’s it.”
So said Charles Nyambe, 58, Special Olympics Africa president and managing director since 2017. Nyambe is in Egypt to witness the first Special Olympics Pan-African Games taking place from 23-31 January under the auspices of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
“Under SO Africa we have 38 accredited programmes and we are still missing 10 to 15 programmes that we are quickly trying to bring into the Special Olympics. We are looking first for good leadership that can initiate and lead this programme in his or her country. Then we start training them, then we go to the country and work with government to make sure that Special Olympics is having recognition from all local authorities to establish strength. Then they start recruiting coaches and attracting athletes and then we can say that we have a Special Olympics programme.
“For 15 years we have been training the leaders on a yearly basis for at least once a week to ensure that they are doing the right job for our athletes when they go back. Training is a key for us,” Nyambe said.
Nyambe went up the SO ladder, starting as a sports manager for Africa, then becoming its sports director in 2009, senior director in 2012, vice president, and current president and managing director of SO Africa.
Nyambe started his career as a physical education teacher in Namibia’s International School. “As a part-time job, I used to coach the University of Namibia in basketball. One day I was asked if I could help with training basketball to a team as a volunteer. I did not even ask which team it was and all of a sudden a bus came and people with mental disabilities started coming to train. I had never had training on how to deal with them. First I panicked, but I started coaching them. When I was coaching at the university, I had to teach players how to understand sports and change their attitudes towards sports but it was completely different with the Special Olympics athletes. They had a great attitude from day one. That is the difference. They are learning and applying everything, eager to learn and to do what I tell them.
“From then on, the athletes came running to learn. Then I was asked to be a volunteer basketball head coach for Special Olympics Namibia and I agreed. I took the basketball team to the World Summer Games in North Carolina in 1999. We came back home with medals so I was asked to take over as the SO Namibia sports national director in 2001 as they felt how committed and dedicated I was.
“In Ireland at the 2003 World Summer Games, I took part in the Youth Summit and we were in a room discussing a lot of things with Dr Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics chairman. [Former SO Africa president and managing director] Dr John Daw asked me to attend a training session in South Africa and he offered me the post of sports manager SO Africa. At the time I had to retire from all my jobs to be a full-time sports manager. Dr John Daw has mentored me. He taught me all what I know now and I really respect and appreciate his help and support.”
On the challenges of helping SO Africa to hold its first African Games, Nyambe said they have 14 newly-born programmes that were accredited last year so they need to bring these programmes to the same levels as their older counterparts. “Secondly, worldwide, economies are not doing very well so it is the same with those programmes in Africa as they have to provide money to buy their tickets to fly to the host country that will host the regional games, so raising money is a big challenge.”
As to the idea of joining forces with SO MENA for the Pan-African Games, Nyambe said he had asked Ayman Abdel-Wahab, SO MENA president and managing director, whether there was a way to find a Gulf country like the United Arab Emirates that could sponsor these first regional games. “Abdel-Wahab suggested I look at a country in Africa to host the event and we chose Egypt.”
“It is unbelievable that we are here today. The leadership in Special Olympics is very excited about the idea of joining forces in one Games. We chose the sports that are most commonly played by all African programmes. We are very excited and even the athletes are very excited. We are writing history, the first-ever two regions coming together to put their Games together. It will be developing a template, a legacy for the other regions. I want to sincerely thank the leadership of Abdel-Wahab for having a vision like this. He has got an excellent Local Organising Committee.”
Nyambe called Al-Sisi’s patronage of the event outstanding. “His agreement to do that is what we salute and what we look for because for too long people with intellectual disabilities were sidelined by even their family members and their communities and societies, so for a president of a country to recognise that, it opens many doors and changes a lot of attitudes.
“This is the first Pan-African Games and we hope at the second we will be able to get more presidents to share with us. In Mauritius, the SO Mauritius delegation went to the State House and the president saw them off. We also started working with the African Union and we should start speaking to the ministers and ambassadors so that when they meet they must understand that Special Olympics is to be taken into consideration and our athletes should be included.”
Nyambe thanked the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its help and Egyptian ambassadors in African countries for taking the event seriously “by helping our African programmes in receiving their visas to Egypt easily and in a very short time. They are really efficient. We will forever be indebted for this government for what they have done, from the president to the Foreign Ministry to everyone who helped make this dream come true.”
“The reason for this Games is to bring awareness that there is a population that people need to pay attention to. They are human beings and through sports we are trying to include them in society.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.