Learning Disability, Sport and Legacy Report Launch

This report is the first rigorous and detailed examination of the problems and possibilities of hosting the SOGB National Summer Games. SOGB was set up in 1978 and it is the largest organisation providing sport for people with learning disabilities in the UK. It currently has c.8,500 members with much of its work heavily dependent on local volunteers. The first Games were staged in 1982 and have been held at four-year intervals hosted by different cities throughout the UK. Special Olympics Leicester 2009 (SOL 2009) involved c.2,500 athletes, 1,200 coaches plus 6,000 family members and carers, making it the largest multi-sports event held in Britain in that year.

Here we provide a summary of the two-year collaborative research project into the impact and legacy of the Games for the athletes, the city and the public run by the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University and the Department of Sociology, University of Leicester. Supported by Leicester City Council and SOGB, this project has produced original and important quantitative and qualitative findings on the role of Special Olympics (SO) in terms of:

  • The value of sport for people with learning disabilities and their families and carers
  • The financial and organisational issues for host cities in staging a mega-event
  • Public and media awareness of learning disabilities generated by the Games
  • The critical role of volunteers and the volunteer programme
  • The major challenges of sustaining a viable Games legacy
  • The future role of SOGB

The Changing Social Context

SOL 2009 highlighted some of the limitations of the Special Olympics concept.

  • Special Olympics rely too heavily on local volunteering for providing sporting opportunities for people with learning disabilities.
  • Because of a relative lack of impact in certain urban centres – especially London – and cultural resistance inside BME communities, Special Olympics is marked by an ethnic exclusivity and does not reflect the diverse face of modern Britain.


To meet these new challenges, SOGB needs to modernise. It seems unlikely that the Games can continue in its present format without perpetuating forms of exclusion or without downsizing in response to the new economic realities. It will, therefore, have to assess a number of different potential future scenarios. There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution but we offer a number of possible ways forward:

  • The traditional forms of charity support and celebrity fundraising seem far too limited to face the new challenges which lie ahead for learning disabilities sport
  • SOGB will have to rethink its current structures and its connections with ethnic minority groups, other learning disability bodies, national governing bodies for sport, and other agencies
  • Some forms of positive action might be needed, initially, to attract more athletes from BME backgrounds
  • The format of the Games may need to be reviewed (for example, the provision of more regional events) in order to offer more opportunities for competition for more people with learning disabilities
  • Finally, the future scale of the Games may itself have to be significantly reduced in the light of new economic realities.

Future Research – Sport and Learning Disability

It is intended that this report should act as a stimulus for future research into how sport can have important consequences for the lives, health and welfare of one of society’s most excluded and least visible groups. Working constructively and building effective links across the sector is clearly very important. Sport not only provides enormous social and health benefits for people with learning disabilities but it can also act as a pathway to a greater sense of citizenship and inclusivity.

Any future research would need to take into account how the provision of sporting activities for people with learning disabilities can be more accessible and more sustainable.

Research team

International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University, Leicester:

  • Dr Susan Barton - Project Research Fellow
  • Dr Neil Carter - Senior Research Fellow
  • Professor Richard Holt - Professor of Sports History

University of Leicester:

  • Mr John Williams - Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology

International Centre for Sports History and Culture

The International Centre for Sports History and Culture is the leading centre for the study of sports history in the world. Our team has produced critically acclaimed histories of football, rugby, cricket, women’s sport, British sport and much more.

We offer an innovative MA in Sports History and Culture, work with our European partners on the CIES/FIFA Master in Management, Law and Humanities of Sport and supervise PhD research students from around the world.

Alongside a regular programme of conferences and seminars, we also organise the annual ‘Historians on Sport’ conference that brings together scholars from all over the globe. 

Full Report

Full copy of the Learning Disability, Sport and Legacy Report

Learning Disability, Sport and Legacy Report Launch


In partnership with:  

University of Leicester