Special Olympics apologizes to athletes denied competition over vaccine mandate

Officials agreed to financially sponsor athletes to attend the All-Star Champions Showcase in Florida this October.

Updated: June 24, 2022 - 11:44pm

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The Special Olympics International (SOI) has agreed to issue apologies to the delegates who weren’t able to participate in the 2022 USA Games in Orlando this month because of a vaccine mandate it imposed and didn’t drop until the last minute, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

SOI also agreed to financially sponsor athletes by paying for their travel, lodging, and uniforms enabling them to attend the All-Star Champions Showcase and 50th Anniversary Games, hosted by Special Olympics Florida, this October.

“It is wrong to discriminate against athletes with disabilities due to COVID vaccines. Florida wants everybody to have opportunities to make the most of their God-given abilities and to be able to compete in athletics,” DeSantis said. “Allowing athletes to compete in the USA Games earlier this month was a step in the right direction. Now, Special Olympics Florida is ready to welcome athletes who were not able to compete in our games, thanks to a guarantee of financial assistance from the international organization.”

SOI dropped its vaccine mandate only after the Florida Department of Health issued a notice that it was fining the organization $27.5 million for violating state law, which prohibits organizations from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates as a condition of employment or participation in events in Florida. SOI dropped its mandate at the last minute after having fought the state health department for six months. By the time SOI dropped the mandate, it was too late for many athletes that SOI prohibited from competing over noncompliance with the mandate to travel to Florida in time for the games.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary and Special Olympics Florida Board Member Eric Hall said a number of Special Olympic athletes “were unfortunately deprived of competing over the summer due to Special Olympics International’s unlawful vaccine mandate.

“Although I am thankful some athletes were able to compete over the summer, I am incredibly excited to have the chance to watch ALL athletes compete this Fall.”

Over 70 Special Olympians were able to attend the 2022 USA Games in Florida after SOI dropped its vaccine mandate. Now, all athletes will have time and resources to participate in the Florida Showcase in October, the governor said.

SOI’s about face is part of ongoing trouble it’s run into in Florida. Within one day of the Special Olympics starting in Orlando, it reported that six Haitian adult men who entered Florida as part of the country’s delegation went missing. Five of them weren’t Special Olympics athletes; one has an intellectual disability, Special Olympics USA Games said in a statement at the time.

That was on June 6. Five days later, another adult male member of the Haitian delegation also went missing, one day before his scheduled departure to return to Haiti. The next day, the Osceola County Sheriff's Office reported information about the seventh missing Haitian.

The Sheriff’s Office is requesting help from the community to locate the missing men. Anyone with information about them is encouraged to call 407-348-2222 or 911 and reference case #22I062366.

SOI didn’t immediately respond to request for comment for this story.

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