CEO Influential Women in Sport Mary Davis Special Olympics Women

“We Should Strive To Ensure There Are More Women In Leadership Positions” – Part Two Of Our Conversation With Mary Davis, Special Olympics CEO

May 1, 2020

Following her announcement as one of iSportconnect’s Influential Women In Sport List for 2020 last month, Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics, spoke to iSportconnect’s Ben Page about her career-long journey with the organisation and why it means so much to her, how attitude’s towards women in sport have altered in this time and equality in sport. 

This is part two of our conversation with Mary, part one was released earlier this week and you can read it here:

Do you think more can be done to promote not only women playing sport, but at the executive level like yourself as well?

We should strive to ensure there are more women in leadership positions. What iSportConnect is doing to recognise influential women in sport is fantastic. It is so important to acknowledge and recognise women leaders in sport so girls can see the pathway is paved. They’ll see these role models and can be inspired in the same way I was inspired.

The media coverage of women’s sports has come a long way, but in many countries it can still be improved. The gender pay gap is still entrenched around the world. The US is having a public conversation around the pay gap right now with the women’s national soccer team having more World Cup wins than then men and being paid significantly less.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment with Special Olympics?

I represent five and a half million athletes with intellectual disabilities, half a million volunteer sport coaches, thousands of volunteers, and sponsors and partners who generously support us and what we do. I have the responsibility promote the voice and influence of our athletes and the impact that they can have in the community at large. I believe I’ve improved understanding of people with intellectual disability, and helped shift perceptions, attitudes and behaviour.

When I started as a volunteer with Special Olympics Ireland, I thought I was providing a service to people with intellectual disability—training them, making their lives better. But now we’re creating an environment where the athletes are our leaders. They’re the teachers of inclusion and respect and like Greg Silvester, who spoke at your recent event, they’re doing an incredible job.

When I was coaching a female athlete in gymnastics to win the all-round gold medal in the 1989 Special Olympic World Games in South Bend, Indiana, I will never forget that moment because she had worked so hard. She’s a wonderful example of someone who, through the confidence, self-esteem and dignity she got from sport, was able to move from sheltered employment to working in a hotel in open employment and living in an apartment which she still lives in today. She’s now on the counsel of patrons here in Ireland.

Do you think changing the perceptions the general public may have of Special Olympics athletes is the key for you?

I do. Through our programme in schools, we are changing the mindsets of young people who will be the leaders of the future. When they are in influential positions, they will change policies to be more inclusive of people with intellectual disability. They will embody the spirit of the movement, and ensure people with intellectual disability are given opportunities both on and off the playing field and ultimately be able to participate in the workforce just like everybody else.

Sport is the key that opens the door. No matter your ability, what you learn through sport training—discipline, leadership, communication, and so on—you use at school, work, and your community. We are all peers on the playing field, and learning that attitude first hand stays with you your whole life.

The 2012 Paralympics in London marked a huge change in perceptions for that organisation, could there one day be a time when Special Olympics is mentioned alongside the Olympics and Paralympics?

Media coverage of the Paralympics in London was outstanding and that awareness that did begin to change perceptions of people with disabilities in many countries.

The Olympics and Paralympics are about elite sport and being the best and winning medals. Of course Special Olympics athletes like to win medals as well, but we are about being your best. We are a community-based, grassroots organisation, with five and a half million athletes training and competing in over 240 countries and territories worldwide.

While we are best known for our World Games, we have over 100,000 competitions every year. Special Olympics is about athletes being the best they can be in every aspect of their lives. We use the platform and power of sport to achieve health, well-being and changing mindsets about people with intellectual disability being true leaders.

CEO Influential Women in Sport Mary Davis Special Olympics Women