The children converged at the National University of Jakarta’s campus in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, for one of their twice weekly athletic meets.
Watched closely by their coaches, they began practicing for upcoming athletic competitions, such as the National Sports Week in Makassar, South Sulawesi in June, or ultimately, the 2015 Special Olympics Summer Games in Los Angeles.
The athletes are among more than 800 mentally disabled children from the greater Jakarta area who would try out for various sports in Rawamangun, one of two training centers for mentally disabled athletes in the capital. The trust and obedience they give their coaches are only matched by the joy and enthusiasm that comes from a sense of togetherness, a common purpose, or the pleasure of interacting with one another.
The sense of camaraderie and goodwill owes much to the efforts of National University of Jakarta training coordinator for the faculty of sports, Mustara Musa, a pioneer of the Special Olympics in Indonesia.
Starting out in the Special Olympics
“I got my start in the Special Olympics movement in 1988, when I was referred by my lecturer, the late professor Ali Husein, to train mentally disabled children. I wasn’t sure why he chose me, as I had no prior qualification in working with them,” says Mustara, who started out as a track and field major at the National University of Jakarta.
“The first Special Olympics Games I went to was in 1991, where I started off as the coach of the track and field team. Back then, Indonesia was still an observer, as it only joined the Games three years earlier.”
But it wasn’t until four years later, when he was training the Indonesian track and field team going to the 1995 Special Olympics in New Haven, Connecticut, that he stumbled across an epiphany.
“A mentally disabled athlete from Bali, Ni Luh, started going into hysterics after her coach dropped her off in Jakarta prior to the team’s departure for the Games,” he recalls. “When I approached her, I started crying out of empathy. When she cried harder, I did the same; and it got to the point that she tried to calm me down.”
The experience also revealed to Mustara the children’s dependency on others, like their coaches or loved ones, and gave him insights on interacting with them.
“Once we got to New Haven, Ni Luh nearly had another crying fit because she had trouble adjusting to her new surroundings. But then I diverted her energy into more positive outlets by having her run three laps, which calmed her down.”
Since then, Mustara surged through the Special Olympics Indonesia hierarchy to become head of the Indonesian contingent to the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens. Through it all, Mustara stuck to the Special Olympics tenet of “Training From the Heart.”
“We have to be imaginative in dealing with each child. Like ‘normal’ kids, each of them have different personalities. But their mental state forces us to double our efforts, and requires us to be more discerning, as there’s no surefire way in handling with them,” Mustara says.
A team effort
One integral element to Mustara’s training methods is the close involvement of parents in his charges’ training.
“I encouraged the parents to be more involved in their children’s training by establishing a routine, whether it be taking them to practice two or three times a week or giving them chores around the house on a daily basis,” he says. “Before they know it, they’ll be able to run, swim or do other sports. This is a considerable feat, considering they were regarded as helpless or unable to do anything for themselves.”
However, he acknowledged that some obstacles will remain.
“When people have physical disabilities, whether they be deaf mute, blind, paralyzed or have no limbs, they can still lead their own lives because their mental faculties are intact. Mentally disabled people, on the other hand, will always need the support and guidance of their loved ones because of their limitations,” he says. “But most importantly, we need to change the parents’ mindsets of being overly protective and confining them to their comfort zone of school and home.
“Our basis lies in a 1995 Yale University study of the Special Olympics, which noted that sports contributes to the physical, social and psychological development of the mentally disabled. Their successful experiences in sports bolsters their confidence and self image, which in turn will carry over into the home, school and community.”
Nonetheless, these obstacles did not bar Mustara’s charges from making their mark on the world stage. During their first Special Olympics in 1995, the 27-man Indonesian team managed to win 13 gold, 18 silver and seven bronze medals. The team continued its winning streak with a 460-man contingent, securing 19 gold, 27 silver and 31 bronze medals at the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens, Greece.
“The Special Olympics are different from the Olympic games in that the events are grouped in divisions from the ages of eight to 30 or over, as well as their motoric capabilities, instead of a ranking system,” he explains. “The system is more egalitarian and in line with the athletes’ vow of ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’”
For Mustara, two time gold medalist Amos Berry Selly personifies this unwavering testament.
“Amos faced added odds compared to his teammates, because he was an orphan. At first, he couldn’t tell the difference between the start and finish lines, or even the men’s and women’s bathrooms. But he was fast, and with proper training managed to win the 100-meter race in the 1999 and 2003 Special Olympics,” Mustara says of the Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, native who currently works as a receptionist at the Indonesian Special Olympics offices. “Like other mentally disabled people, Amos is easily influenced by his environment. Later on, he got in with some bad company who led him astray. I set him down the right path, and placed him in the care of former Jakarta governor Soerjadi Soedirdja.”
Repairing the system
As training coordinator for the Indonesian Special Olympics team, Mustara passed on his expertise to other coaches, including Slamet Sukriyadi.
“I was drawn to the Special Olympics motto of ‘Training From the Heart.’ As their coach, I have to do more than keep them in shape,” says the 30-year-old, who is one of 150 Special Olympics trainers nationwide. “I have to be their friend, brother, parent as well as baby sitter and more, all in one. I also draw up a daily plan for their parents to follow. I don’t look for financial incentives in the job. The sense of achievement, and giving them the chance to prove themselves is what keeps me going.”
For now, Mustara seeks to raise the government’s awareness about the inclusive global competition.
“We wish to highlight how these athletes raised Indonesia’s profile through their accomplishments. Among the things we need is our own training center. So far, we’ve been using public facilities, which limits our training,” he says. “A center of our own could help us accomplish far more; we could train for three, four months, instead of one or two.”
Mustara adds that he is seeking to encourage Indonesian businesses to sponsor the games, as well as follow the lead of their counterparts overseas and volunteer their services.
While the efforts of Mustara or Special Olympics Indonesia has yet to bear fruit, his passion and perseverance are worthy of a gold medal.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 1, 2014