Passion, podiums and partying: volunteering at the Special Olympics

In 2018, Canon UK’s Claire Behan volunteered as a photographer for Special Olympics. Today, she covers their events worldwide and loves every minute.
Two swimmers photographed from the chest up. The swimmer on the right has their arm around the shoulders of the swimmer on the left. They are both wearing white swimming caps, with goggles pushed up over it on the right-hand swimmer. She also wears a blue jacket over a blue swimming costume and the ribbon of a medal can be seen around her neck. The left-hand swimmer wears a red costume with blue trim.
Lucy Sheppard

Written by Lucy Sheppard

Internal Communications, Canon UK

“If you want to know the difference between ‘volunteering’ and ‘giving your time to others’, then just spend an hour with Claire Behan. A Campaign Executive at Canon UK and Ireland, Claire spends several weeks a year travelling the world with the Special Olympics as their official photographer, using her volunteer days and annual leave to document and raise awareness of this extraordinary organisation and its events.”
Special Olympics might just be the biggest global sporting body you’ve never heard of. Founded over fifty years ago in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard, it is now the largest sports organisation for adults and children with physical and intellectual disabilities. The numbers speak for themselves – Special Olympics provides training to over three million athletes in 200 countries, as well as holding international competitions. Next year’s Special Olympics World Games in Berlin anticipates hosting over 7000 athletes, who will be competing across 24 different sports. It is, without exaggeration, a huge and important movement that is starting to reach a wider audience through the work of people like Claire who give their time to champion the organisation. For those people Special Olympics is more than a movement – it’s a family.
No stranger to volunteering, by the time Claire joined the crew of the Special Olympics, her BA in Photography had given her plenty of opportunities to join various projects in her native Ireland, documenting events and campaigns. However, a chance encounter at a networking event in 2018 changed her life. “I met Fiona Hynes, who works for Special Olympics,” she explains. “She is the Communications Director across all of Europe and Eurasia and has a small team in Ireland. We got chatting and I gave her my phone number.” Anyone who has been to a networking event will be surprised by what happened next. “She called me!” laughs Claire. “And said, ‘Hi, do you want to come to Azerbaijan with me?’”. It was quite out of the blue, but she knew of the work of Special Olympics and simply couldn’t say no. The impact of this first trip was profound and Claire was hooked on the buzz of the events, the warmth and passion of everyone involved and a joyful atmosphere that is almost indescribable. Almost.

Three athletes on the podium. In the silver position, left, a woman in black and pink tight-fitting ski suit wears a competitor’s bib, her medal and ski boots. She is about to clap her hands. In the gold spot, the athlete wears a ski suit patterned in blue, red and white. Her bib bears the number 32, and she has her arms raised above her head with joy. In the bronze position, right, the athlete is of indeterminate gender and wears black trousers with a blue top and a bib bearing the number 28, but a medal obscures it. Behind them is a banner showing four blue and yellow rings and snippets of text about the event.

© Claire Behan on behalf of Special Olympics.

The events that Special Olympics create for their athletes are every bit as impressive as their Olympic and Paralympic contemporaries. And, like them, the athletes competing at Special Olympics train for years, giving body and soul to the pursuit of success. Claire describes the delight of the competitions and positive mindsets of the athletes as “infectious”, saying, “the opening ceremony, for example, the minute a song comes on, everyone’s up and dancing. Everyone’s having a great time. It’s just positive energy, positive vibes, the whole time I’m there.” For Claire, it is this energy that keeps her going during each event, which, as a photographer, can test her endurance to the limits. Working long hours every day is normal, racing around the stadiums taking photographs and then, later, racing against time to get the edited images out to the press.
However, it has to be said that these marathon days are, at least in part, because she spends her allocated ‘rest days’ hanging out with the athletes, “because I want to get the full experience,” she admits. “For instance, I wouldn’t necessarily be tasked with going to photograph the Young Athletes Programme, but I’d go independently anyway. I just love being there.” Of course, in her role there are plenty of times when she is not working directly with the athletes. During the World Games in Abu Dhabi, for example, she was also working with photographers from global press agencies, working together to make sure that every aspect of the games is covered and working together in the media centres. She is also tasked with photographing Special Olympics Ambassadors and VIPs, such as Didier Drogba and Nicole Scherzinger, but even on those days Claire can’t wait to get back to the action and find out how the athletes have performed.
This is because, at her heart, Claire is a storyteller and working with Special Olympics gives her an abundance of tales to tell. They are not, as you might expect, visual accounts of triumph over adversity. Instead, they present powerful athletes in their prime, in action, in celebration and in support of one another. Every photograph Claire takes plays a part in elevating the work of Special Olympics, yes, but they also help to reshape the story around disability by putting athletes in places of power – as Olympians. “I think when we break down barriers and get the message across it can spark a whole new change. I firmly believe it’s coming,” says Claire. But let’s not think for a minute that her images serve only to challenge misconceptions around disability and raise awareness of the movement. They are equally as important to the athletes themselves. Consider how it must feel to see yourself through the Claire’s lens, as an individual of exceptional skill, strength and fortitude. Someone who is lit from within with the sheer joy of doing the thing you love. It can change the way you view yourself.

Two swimmers photographed from the chest up. The swimmer on the right has their arm around the shoulders of the swimmer on the left. They are both wearing white swimming caps, with goggles pushed up over it on the right-hand swimmer. She also wears a blue jacket over a blue swimming costume and the ribbon of a medal can be seen around her neck. The left-hand swimmer wears a red costume with blue trim.

© Claire Behan on behalf of Special Olympics.

A photograph of Claire Behan, against a backdrop of a snow-covered winter sports course. She is wearing a white and green wool hat that covers her ears and sunglasses, as well as a striped scarf and Canon-branded gilet. In her hand she holds a Canon camera with a huge L-series lens and has an accreditation pass on a lanyard around her neck.

Claire and her camera at the Special Olympics Winter Games

In the time that Claire has been working with Special Olympics, both she and her images have travelled the world. Her photography has been featured in the media wherever Special Olympics receive coverage, as well in sports magazines features and even on the Instagram of supermodel Natalia Vodianova - (“I spent a whole day with her, and she was lovely.”). As exciting as it is to see, it’s clear when you speak to Claire that it’s what comes before that she enjoys the most. It’s travelling on the bus with the athletes and being by the podium to capture their elation as they receive their medals. It’s being right there as the magic happens and then joining in the party afterwards (“The parties are amazing,” she laughs. “Partying with the athletes is the best part of my job, for sure.”). It’s about building relationships, making friends wherever she goes and just being there. The time she spends with Special Olympics is clearly a source of great joy to Claire and nothing is too much trouble as a result.
“Volunteers are the backbone of the Special Olympics movement,” explains Fiona Hynes, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia’s Director of communications. “With three million Special Olympics athletes active in 200 countries, our volunteers support as coaches, trainers, fundraisers, and, in Claire’s case, an amazingly talented photographer! In gifting her time, expertise and passion over the past number of years, she has helped to capture the joy and courage of our athletes at events across the world. We are extremely grateful to Claire, and Canon, for this vital support.”
And this is what it means to be part of a movement. It’s a commitment to something transformative, even though no one said it would be easy. “Sometimes, I’ll come back from a trip and be just so worn out,” she admits. The events are so adrenaline-filled and busy that it can often take Claire a few days just to process what she’s experienced. “And then I’ll get an email, like I did last night – about going Tuscany in October for a basketball tournament. I immediately rang my mum and said, ‘shall I do it?’ And she was like, ‘Yes! Absolutely. You won’t regret it. Claire, don’t be silly.” And, of course, Claire and her camera will be going to Tuscany. “They’re [Special Olympics] doing what they’re doing to represent athletes in the best possible way,” she says. “So, it’s nice to play a part and, if I can, tell that story. How could I not go every time I’m asked?”

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