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Italy Just Hosted the First Olympics-Like Competition for People With Down Syndrome

The unique competition drew 1,000 athletes

Athletes with Down Syndrome compete in the first-ever Olympic-style competition for people with the condition. (Trisome Games/Facebook)
smithsonian.com

Move over, Rio—Italy just had its own Olympics-style games complete with heartbreak, joy and plenty of athletic glory. But the games weren’t your average sporting event. As the Agence France-Presse reports, they were the first world athletic competition just for people with Down Syndrome, drawing athletes from 36 countries around the world.

The week-long Trisome Games were held in Florence, Italy, and drew around 1,000 athletes, the AFP reports. Competitors duked it out in swimming, synchronized swimming, track-style athletics, soccer, tennis, table tennis, judo and gymnastics. Every single athlete has Down Syndrome, an intellectual disability that affects about one in 1,000 live births worldwide.

People with Down Syndrome have extra genetic material in chromosome 21, and up to 95 percent of people with the condition have an extra full copy of the chromosome. This form of the condition is called Trisomy 21, and it causes distinctive facial features, cognitive symptoms, and a number of other physical symptoms, though the condition manifests itself differently in each person. The event gets its name from the condition—and athletes who participated in were dubbed T21s.

The games, which occurred alongside a forum on the condition, were not just a chance for athletes with Down Syndrome to strut their stuff—they were also a response to the challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities who want to participate in the upcoming Paralympic Games.

There is currently no specific Down Syndrome category for the Paralympics, and the topic of intellectual disabilities at the games has been fraught with controversy since 2000, when a group of Spanish athletes posed as athletes with intellectual disabilities. After the fraud was revealed, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) temporarily banned athletes with intellectual disabilities. Though the committee welcomed back competitors with intellectual disabilities in 2012, the few competitors who do qualify are closely monitored. In contrast, participants in the Trisome Games were registered with the Sports Union for Athletes With Down Syndrome (SU-DS), which has its own qualifying criteria.

In the future, writes the SU-DS, the organization will lobby the IPC for a specific category for athletes with the condition. But for now, the Trisome Games served as a breath of fresh air for competitors determined to show off their sports prowess. And like any athletic event, the competition was fierce: A pair of games between South Africa and Brazil and Italy, respectively, was determined “irregular” and had to be replayed in order to protect what the Trisome Games called “the spirit of sport.” When it comes to sports, competition—and controversy—is universal.

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