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Carl Chisholm, centre, is the former mayor of Antigonish, N.S., and co-chair of Special Olympics Canada’s 2018 Summer Games, to be held at St. Francis Xavier University in late July.Darren Calabrese/Globe and Mail

Tucked into Nova Scotia’s northeastern corner, the small town of Antigonish gets a bit sleepy in the summer — especially after students from St. Francis Xavier University head home for the holidays. This summer, however, will be a little different. On July 31, the picturesque town will swell with more than 1,000 athletes, thousands of their friends and family, 600 volunteers, and 400 coaches and staff for the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games.

“I’ve been stressing to everyone how busy this little town of ours is going to be,” says Carl Chisholm, the town’s former mayor and co-chair of the Antigonish Games. “Every bar, restaurant, store and shop will be packed.”

Rather than a liability, however, the town’s close-knit nature will be an asset for athletes and fans, as organizers seek to create one of the most memorable Games since the first Canadian Special Olympics national competition was held in Toronto in 1969.

“It’s an ideal setting,” says Blair McIntosh, vice-president of sport with Special Olympics. “Antigonish is one of those communities where we can create a true athlete’s village environment for our athletes. Camaraderie is huge for them, so to be in an environment where they can be close to teammates and meet others is huge.”

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The football field at St. Francis Xavier is adding seating to accommodate the crowds expected for the Summer Games. Seven of the Games’s nine sports will be played on the campus.Darren Calabrese/Globe and Mail

The campus of St. Francis Xavier will be the hub during the week-long celebration of sport and inclusivity, playing host to seven of the nine sports: athletics, basketball, bocce, rhythmic gymnastics, powerlifting, soccer, and swimming. Two more — softball and golf — will be held a short drive away. Athletes will be accommodated at campus residences.

The close quarters will also alleviate what Games manager Matt Quinn says is always the event’s biggest challenge: transportation. “It’s no fun to organize your entire day around bus schedules,” says Quinn, “which is sometimes the case depending on the community. So it’s going to be an amazing experience for these Games to see athletes able to plan their own day, walk a few hundred metres from one facility to another to see friends participating in other sports, spend time with family in between events, and rest.”

Transportation isn’t the only logistical issue that Games organizers usually face, though. Meals, security, services for family members, co-ordinating the 600 volunteers, and medical services are all vying for attention. But the overriding concern this year is what Quinn refers to as “athlete experience.”

Besides enabling athletes to see as much of the Games as possible, organizers are planning tourist excursions, nightly musical performances, and more opportunities for athletes to mingle with their peers from across the country.

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Co-chairs of the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games, Marc Champoux, left, and Carl Chisholm are putting together a program that goes beyond athletic competition to include nightly celebrations of local culture and music, and a final dance party to close down the Games.Darren Calabrese/Globe and Mail

Chisholm, a long-time supporter of the Special Olympics whose daughter competed at the 2002 national Games in Prince Albert, Sask., says the social aspect of the Games is vital. “To watch these athletes is a different experience. They take great joy in winning, but as long as they cross that finish line they simply take great joy in being there, and being together.”

Cathy Mason, who has been a volunteer with the Nova Scotia chapter of Special Olympics since 1992, and has attended 10 national games, is the chef de mission this year for the Nova Scotia team. She says much the same: “A few years ago at a fundraiser in Pictou, [hockey Hall of Famer] Lanny McDonald said that once you start to volunteer with the Special Olympics, you’re just hooked, and it’s absolutely true. I’ve learned so much from the athletes. … Their ability to embrace the spirit of competition while also being supportive of one another, always ready and willing to help each other out, is incredible.”

This year is also a milestone for Special Olympics, nationally and internationally. This month, the Special Olympics celebrates a half century of competition with a five-day event in Chicago, where the first international event was held in 1968.

And the Canadian Games are undergoing a major change: The Antigonish event will be the last under which the event passes from region to region within Canada. From now on, cities and towns nationwide will bid on the Games as they would on any other multisport event. McIntosh believes this is a reflection of greater appreciation for the Special Olympics’ value, placing it in line with other multisport events.

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More than 1,000 athletes, thousands of their friends and family, 600 volunteers, and 400 coaches and staff will descend on Antigonish. The Games begin July 31.Darren Calabrese/Globe and Mail

McIntosh has already entertained interest from more than two dozen municipalities for the 2022 Summer Games (the 2020 Winter Games will be held in Thunder Bay, the first city to go through the bid process), and he believes that much of the value for host communities lies in the kind of visitor influx for which Antigonish is bracing. The Special Olympics attracts about three friends and family members for each athlete, as opposed to other multisport events, which attract about half that.

That all leads back to the celebratory and social aspect of the Games, which organizers fully embrace, with nightly celebrations of local culture and music, and a final dance party to close down the Games.

“I know it sounds crazy,” says McIntosh, “but our athletes love to dance. Nine times out of 10, they could win five golds, and they’d still say the dance is their most memorable experience.”

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