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Special Olympics Athletes Stuck on the Sidelines

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Aired 4/19/09

Hundreds of athletes in San Diego's Special Olympics should be getting ready for a basketball tournament this morning. Instead they'll be at a rally for their mentors, whose jobs are in jeopardy. This week Special Olympics announced investigations of all staff members in the San Diego office for possible violations of company standards. Today's tournament was suddenly cancelled, and the office is closed. The staff members are on paid leave while "fact-finding interviews" are conducted. Athletes and their parents are angry that company bureaucracy is getting in the way of its mission.

Ketteringham : My name is Sharon Ketteringham. I am an athlete with Special Olympics San Diego.

Ketteringham is 42 years old, and she has a learning disability. She signed up for Special Olympics all the way back in high school. Since that time she describes a transformation.

Ketteringham : I learned how to communicate, talk more, not be as shy. I used to be -- this was very difficult when I was little.

Ketteringham competes in basketball, hockey and ice skating. But for her and 1,100 other San Diegans, it's about more than sports. It's friendship and support.

Ketteringham : They help me out when I need some help, because my parents are gone. And I needed somebody to stay overnight one night because I had surgery on my eye. And I needed somebody there, and they stayed with me. Or if somebody needs to be talked to, like one-on-one, they are there to listen.

Ketteringham was signed up for the once-a-year basketball invitational. This week, she and some 500 other athletes got news of the cancellation. It was a statement from the Special Olympics state office.

Ketterinngham : It says, Recent concerns about the possibility of some -- I can't pronounce this word – d-e-v-i-a-t-i-o-n-s.

"Deviations" from the standards and practices of Special Olympics. Officials won't explain what that means. They insist this is not a criminal investigation.

Ruth Ruiz : There's no good time to cancel a tournament.

This is Ruth Ruiz, spokeswoman for Special Olympics Southern California.

Ruiz : But we needed to address some of these issues that came up.

Andrew Phelps : If they're fact-finding interviews to determine if the claims are correct to begin with, then why can't interviews be going on while a tournament is continuing?

Ruiz : Unfortunately, I can't comment any further.

There is chatter among athletes and volunteers that politics is at play. The four staff members in question won't give interviews. Sources say they-themselves don't know what's going on. There's talk of reorganizing the San Diego office and handing over the finances to upper management. The company won't comment on that.

Everyone interviewed for this story sings the praises of the staff members. They dedicate long hours to sporting events. They're always available for a ride to or from practice. Everything was running smoothly.

Cunningham : I cannot fathom that anyone in that office has done anything.

Mary Cunningham and her son Ryan never miss a practice. He's been playing basketball at Special Olympics for six years.

Cunningham : Ryan just learned how to dribble this season, and we were really looking forward to see Ryan dribbling at the tournament.

Ryan Douglas : It's really hard sometimes.

Ryan says the athletics are hard sometimes. But everyone gets rewarded for trying.

Cunningham : What's come down upon this office is not what any of us thinks Special Olympics is. It's an affront to everything that we believe about Special Olympics.

Cunningham says the athletes take this hard because they don't understand what's wrong. One athlete asked her if the director was dead, because that's the only way a tournament could be cancelled.

The state office says San Diego's Special Olympics program should re-open sometime next week. That would be just in time for the East County track meet next Saturday. For KPBS, I'm Andrew Phelps.

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