Who can be a Special Olympics athlete?

To be eligible for Special Olympics, participants must have an intellectual disability; a cognitive delay, or a developmental disability.

What does this mean?

According to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), an individual is considered to have an intellectual disability based on the following three criteria:

  • Intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75;
  • Significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skill areas; and
  • The condition manifests itself before the age of 18.

Adaptive skills are assessed in the person’s every-day environment across all aspects of their life. A person with limits in intellectual functioning who does not have limits in adaptive skill areas may not be diagnosed as having an intellectual disability. Learn more about types of intellectual disabilities.

Overall, inclusion is preferred to exclusion when eligibility is in question. For more information about who can participate, please visit our Athlete and Family Resources page.

What about physical disabilities?

The primary focus of Special Olympics Canada is to enrich the lives of individuals with an intellectual disability through sport. Focus on intellectual disability is what differentiates Special Olympics from the Paralympics, which serves individuals with physical disabilities. The International Olympic Committee recognizes Special Olympics and Paralympics as two separate and distinct sport organizations, that meet the needs of two separate communities of athletes.

How much athletic skill or experience is needed?

Athletes of all ability levels are encouraged to participate in Special Olympics programs. Through the use of equitable divisioning, competitions are structured so that athletes compete with other athletes of similar abilities. Please visit our Programs page to learn more about all the participation options available.

Is there a minimum age to participate?

Each Special Olympics program has specific age guidelines, depending on the type of activity. Community based programs offer athletes the programs necessary to develop important skills required in sport and everyday life. You can start as early as two years of age, but you are never 'too old' to start!

Active Start and FUNdamentals are innovative play programs for children with intellectual disabilities that focus on physical literacy and basic motor skills development. Active Start and FUNdamentals are open to children between the ages of two and 12. Please visit our Programs page to learn more about how SOC engages young athletes.

Special Olympics community and competitive programs, on the other hand, do have a minimum age requirement of eight years of age. Our competitive athlete programs start locally, and can grow to international competition depending on athlete wishes and development.

Are there any other restrictions?

Participants must agree to the sport rules of Special Olympics Canada. For more information about the requirements or on how to register, please contact your Provincial or Territorial Chapter.