Unified Cup soccer tourney kicks off Special Olympics 50th anniversary events

Team Mexico during the opening games of the Special Olympics Unified Cup opening ceremonies. | Francesca Gattuso/Sun-Times

Athletes from around the globe are gathering in Chicago this week to compete in the first-ever Special Olympics Unified Cup as part of Special Olympics’ 50th anniversary celebration.

The nearly weeklong soccer tournament features 24 men’s and women’s teams, including athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, from different countries. The tournament, which began Tuesday, kicks off several days of events, culminating with a Northerly Island concert featuring Chance the Rapper and other artists on Saturday night.

For many of the athletes and their coaches, this is their first time leaving their homes and traveling to the U.S.

“I love almost everything about it here in Chicago, to be honest,” Russia’s head coach, Andrey Kuklev, said through a translator. “This is our first international tournament, and we are very nervous but so excited, too.”

Special Olympics athlete, Jin Seon Jeong from Team Korea explained, “I play two games a month and practiced a lot with my team to get ready for this day. I have been dreaming of this moment.”

Grecia Cortez from Mexico City shared a bit of her journey as well.

“My heart is so full right now,” Cortez said. “Soccer is everything where I come from. I have been playing with Special Olympics since I was 6 years old, and now I am here to represent Mexico.”

More than 60 teams applied to be in the Unified Cup, and Mexico along with 23 other clubs made the cut to compete in Chicago, which 50 years ago this week hosted the first Special Olympics Summer Games. Some Special Olympics athletes even got the opportunity to train with professional soccer squads in their homelands.

The qualifying teams were introduced during an opening ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. Athletes walked proudly in pairs onto CIBC Fire Pitch Field on the North Side holding signs designating their countries, while more than 500 volunteers, family, friends, Chicago Park District day campers, Special Olympics global ambassadors, coaching staff and law enforcement officers cheered them on.

Team Korea during the opening games of the Special Olympics Unified Cup opening ceremonies. | Francesca Gattuso

Emphasizing the importance of being inclusive to all was a goal of Lou Laria, Chief of Games and Competition Special Olympics.

“Playing and working together is something everyone, especially the younger generations can be a part of,” Laria said. “Unified Games have been in existence for years, but to see it on this type of stage 50 years later and celebrate that success is amazing.”

Special Olympics Unified Cup logo | Special Olympics

David Dore, a special education teacher at Homewood Flossmoor High School with Team USA for Illinois, firmly believes in the impact of the games.

“I wonder if the kids playing truly understand the magnitude of what they are accomplishing,” Dore said.

“This is a once in lifetime experience that is hard to replicate.”

Preliminary soccer matches began Tuesday and run through Thursday at CIBC Fire Pitch, 3626 N. Talman Ave. The final matches, to take place at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, will be broadcast live on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. on Friday. All matches are free and open to the public.

Other Special Olympics 50th anniversary events this week include the unveiling Friday of a monument near Soldier Field, where the first Summer Games happened 50 years ago. The Chicago Sun-Times is a sponsor of Special Olympics 50th anniversary celebration.

Read more on Special Olympics 50th anniversary:

The Special Olympics legacy: How it all began in Chicago

Special Olympics ‘5 for 50’: 5 athletes for 50 years — and a bonus

50 years, 50 videos: A visual celebration of the Special Olympics

The future of Special Olympics: Come join the inclusion revolution

For Daniel Smrokowski, chronicling SO athletes’ journeys is a study in empowerment

Miles, medals, an ESPY and a movie mark Loretta Claiborne’s Special Olympics journey

For one Illinois athlete, Special Olympics go beyond sports. They’re his voice.

Beating the odds: 1st Special Olympian in Chicago sports hall of fame

Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope Monument set for Soldier Field site

New book spotlights Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics

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