Pope Francis met with Italy's top Special Olympics athletes on Friday, encouraging them and all athletes to make sports a place for loyalty, human dignity and joy. “It is my hope that you all might live the upcoming games in a joyful, passionate, serene manner: have fun,” he said. The Pope held a June 19 audience for Italy's 150 delegates to the Special Olympics 2015 World Games. The event will be held in Los Angeles, Calif. July 25 to August 2. During his remarks, Pope Francis reflected on the promise of sports. “It is beautiful and meaningful that young people and adults find in sport and participation in competitions, including at an international level, an incentive to live their life fully,” he said. “It is a challenge, and you have accepted it and ‘taken the field’.” “I encourage you to continue in your efforts to help each other to discover your potential and to love life, to appreciate it in all its limits and above all, its beautiful sides.” The Pope also encouraged the Special Olympians to make friends from around the world. The Special Olympics were founded in the U.S. in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to provide sports and athletic opportunities for the mentally disabled. Over 4.4 million athletes in 177 countries take part in over 81,000 games and competitions each year, according to the website of the Special Olympics’ 2015 world games. Pope Francis said the athletes had chosen sports as “an experience of development and growth, in the presence of a condition of fragility and limitation.” He told them that sports is a way to learn “to participate, to outdo oneself, to strive together.” “All this helps you to become active members of society and also of the Church; and it helps society itself and the Church to overcome all forms of discrimination and exclusion.” He encouraged the athletes to be faithful to this ideal of sports. “Do not let yourself be contaminated by a false sporting culture, that of economic success, victory at any cost, and individualism,” he continued. He praised amateur sports’ culture of “gratuity” and of “sport for sport’s sake.” “We must protect and defend sport as an experience of human values: competition yes, but in loyalty and solidarity. Dignity for every person: always! No one must feel excluded from sport,” said Pope Francis. He said the world of sports and the Church can work together to restore the “true meaning” of sports in its “educational, playful and recreational” aspects and to restore its cultural and social dignity.
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