Sports group slams Special Olympics

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Norway’s main sports association took aim at the Special Olympics on Friday, arguing that the royally promoted Norwegian branch of the worldwide sport movement for people with disabilities did little to actually facilitate any activities. Special Olympics President Geir Smeby denied the claims his organization lacked significance, was undemocratic and wasn’t transparent enough.

An athlete competes at the Holmenkollen Special Olympics last year. PHOTO: facebook.com/SpecialOlympicsNorge

An athlete competes at the Holmenkollen Special Olympics last year. The Norwegian Confederation of Sports alleged on Friday the organization did very little to practically run sporting events for people with disabilities. Special Olympics Norway also came under fire after it was revealed the organization’s partly-owned fundraising company took 75 percent of all money raised in fees. PHOTO: facebook.com/SpecialOlympicsNorge

The Special Olympics in Norway (which is not related to the Paralympic Games) received NOK 2 million (USD 320,000) in government funding this year and has Princess Märtha Louise as its ambassador, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The organization states it works specifically with the distribution of sports for disabled people, but the Norwegian Confederation of Sports (Norges idrettsforbund, NIF) said it had seen little evidence of that.

“I cannot see that Special Olympics Norway facilitates activities for people with developmental disabilities,” said NIF’s head of communications, Per Tøien. “That is something our local teams and sports associations do.”

“I’m a little shocked that they say we don’t mean anything,” Smeby responded. “It’s not like we simply exist.” He said Special Olympics had so far this year been involved in a snow-shoeing and cross country skiing event at Lillehammer, a snow-shoeing event at a school for students with intellectual disabilities, and the European alpine Special Olympics in Tryvann. He said the Heming sports club took care of the technical part, and they did the rest.

“From A to Z,” Smeby said. “From planning to taking down afterwards. There is not much activity because we are a small organization with a small money bag, but we make a difference for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not like there would be the activity if we weren’t there. We’ve seen that. We have an important role as a facilitator.”

Donations lack transparency
Last week, Special Olympics was one of three groups added to the observation list of Innsamlingskontrollen, the organization which safeguards the public’s charitable donations to various cultural, humanitarian and religious causes. The watchdog monitors organizations to make sure they operate and manage funds in a satisfactory way.

We believe that these organizations operate in a way that donors should be made aware of,” said Borre Hagen, managing director of fundraising in a press statement. “Special Olympics Norway has, despite a submitted application to the collection registry, only in a limited way answered inquiries about accounting and costs. They have also organized the fundraising activities through Bistandshuset AS. That means that only 25 percent of collected funds go to the organization before distribution for the purpose.”

NRK reported Bistandshuset AS took 75 percent of all funds raised in fees. Special Olympics Norway in turn owns 40 percent of the shares in Bistandshuset.

Smeby said he was content with the fact only a quarter of donations actually ended up with the organization. He said they have no income other than the NOK 2 to 3 million raised each year, and the alternative would be having no activities for people with disabilities at all.

NIF disagreed, arguing the input Special Olympics made was irrelevant to the running of events. The leader of the Norwegian Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (Norsk Forbund for Utviklingshemmede, NFU) supported the NIF’s claims. Jens Petter Gitlesen told NRK most of the efforts for running activities for disabled people come through the NIF and their local affiliations.

Government support
Gitlesen cautioned Health Minister Bent Høie over the state’s support of Special Olympics, given the issues raised around its fundraising methods and its actual engagement in sports. “It is positive that the developmentally disabled are named in the government’s platform, and it is positive that you strengthen sports for the developmentally disabled, but you must ensure that the funds you give actually lead to a strengthening and contribution to sports for the disabled,” he said.

He argued there was not enough democracy and transparency around the Norwegian branch leadership, and any complaints were referred to the Special Olympics in Europe or internationally. The Royal Palace declined, as usual, to comment on the criticism against an organization fronted by Princess Martha Louise.

Smeby denied the NIF and NFU’s suite of allegations, saying the organization had a board which was based on different functions, appointed by Special Olympics Europe. “They have a person who is well-acquainted with Norway, and there are Norwegians who work in the international system,” he said.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate