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Forum and wire reports, Published January 09 2010

Special Olympics faces financial struggles

Tommy Sliva is proud of 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 the games were 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 national headquarters.

Groups across the country say they have tried to cut administrative costs first so that athletes aren’t affected.

For example, in Minnesota the Special Olympics has been able to avoid all cuts to programming and served a record number of athletes in 2009, keeping its $3.8 million annual budget flat despite a hiring and salary freeze, said Anna Kucera, a spokeswoman for the state organization.

Tightening the belt has not worked everywhere.

North Dakota plans to stage its winter games next weekend, but it had to cancel them in 2008 because of a lack of funding, said President and CEO Kathy Meagher.

The North Dakota affiliate has taken steps to reduce administrative costs, including reducing staff and travel and having employees take turns shoveling when it snows.

In the face of dwindling sponsorships – Meagher said they are down the past two years, though she isn’t sure precisely how much – the Grand Forks-based organization has also relied on noneconomic help.

The summer games held in Fargo last year were in danger of being canceled until in-kind donations such as a breakfast provided by the Knights of Columbus made the event possible.

“It’s a different mentality in North Dakota,” Meagher said.

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 cut back, but snow sports were axed because they had relatively few participants and cost a lot.

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.

Forum reporter Dave Roepke contributed to this report.

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