Tommy Sliva takes great pride in his Special Olympics medals because they show he can ski better than many of his friends without special needs.
But the 19-year-old with Down Syndrome won’t get to compete in the giant slalom at the Indiana winter games this year because they have been canceled.
“He was very sad. He said, ‘Why, Mom?’ Of course, he doesn’t understand all of the financial situation,” said Veronika Sliva, of Indianapolis.
It’s been a rough two years for the Special Olympics, which endured the death of founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver in August and has seen sponsorship money dry up because of the poor economy. The Washington-based parent organization lost tens of millions of dollars when the stock market tanked in 2008. And many state affiliates have had to cut costs by trimming staff, canceling entire competitions or eliminating certain events.
Kirsten Suto Seckler, a spokeswoman for Special Olympics, said the movement has recently expanded into 20 new countries and now has more than 3 million participants from 160 nations. But she acknowledged that the decline in sponsorship and fundraising has forced some state affiliates to make tough decisions.
State affiliates raise their own funds and operate on their own budgets, but they also receive support and programming help from headquarters.
Groups across the country say they have tried to cut administrative costs first so that athletes aren’t affected. But that hasn’t been possible everywhere.
In Northern California, a lack of funding forced the cancellation of mountain sports like snowboarding and alpine skiing at its upcoming winter games. Affiliate spokeswoman Kirsten Cherry said it was hard to have to cut events, but that the snow sports were axed because they had relatively few participants and cost a lot.
“Most of our athletes are involved in two or three sports. They can move on and still have something to do in the year,” Cherry said.
She said many athletes were disappointed by the decision but understood the reasons.
“They see people losing jobs, they see the cutbacks,” Cherry said.
Oregon canceled its games last year and doesn’t expect to reinstate them this year. But spokesman Mark Evertz said the organization tried instead to send athletes to smaller competitions in the state.
Jeff Mohler, vice president for programs for Special Olympics Indiana, said the skiing and snowshoeing events made sense to cut. They were the most expensive events and had seen 20 percent declines in participation each of the last two years. Only 147 of more than 10,000 athletes statewide participated in the two sports.
North Dakota plans to stage its winter games this month after taking 2009 off because of a lack of funding. The affiliate has taken steps to reduce administrative costs, including reducing staff and travel and having employees take turns shoveling when it snows.
Special Olympics Tennessee hasn’t cut athletic events, but it has stopped allowing new participants in some events, and cut participation in come cases. It has also frozen salaries, canceled retirement contributions, limited travel and reduced office expenses, president Alan Bolick said.
“If contributions don’t come back this year, or if we can’t find new avenues for donations, then we will likely be faced with both eliminating some events and some staff by end of the year,” Bolick said.
Dave Kerchner, who heads the Kentucky affiliate, said his group has left some staff positions vacant for the first time in memory.
“I’ve been on enough discussions with other execs to know the consternation over this been equal in all states. It’s very difficult times,” Kerchner said.
And Massachusetts has curtailed special events such as dances and opening ceremonies to save costs. It is paying for participants in its March winter games to stay overnight for one instead of two nights, saving about $175,000.
Special Olympics Inc. saw its year-end assets fall to $58.4 million in 2008 from $87.8 million in 2007, a 33 percent drop, according to its most recent annual report. Much of that was due to a 36 percent decline in its trust from sales of the “A Very Special Christmas” albums. Due to investment losses while the stock market tanked, the size of that trust fell to $38.9 million in 2008 from $60.7 million in 2007.
2009 was particularly hard on the Special Olympics because of the death of Kennedy Shriver, who founded the organization in 1968 and remained a daily presence at its Washington headquarters well into her 70s. Her son, Timothy Shriver, is the group’s chairman and CEO.
Veronika Sliva said it’s sad her son won’t get to compete in the Indiana games this year and to hear the crowd cheering his name as he hurtles down the slopes. Skiing is special for him because it distinguishes him from friends without special needs who can’t ski, she said.
“He feels like this is something he can do better than normal kids,” she said.
Associated Press writers Terry Tang in Phoenix, Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., Bob Salsberg in Boston and Charles Wilson in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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