Hundreds of athletes took to the fields in Rome over the weekend for the launch of this year's “Special Olympics European Football Week,” an unique event which saw people both with — and without — intellectual disabilities competing side by side.

“This is about the athletes, about their abilities, about giving them a chance,” said Logan Ludwig, deputy supreme knight for the Knights of Columbus, which sponsored the event.

“The Special Olympics athletes don’t ask for special treatment. They just ask for a chance,” he told CNA.

Nearly a hundred players took part in the games on Friday at the Knights-run Pio XI Sport Center, which launched the May 21-29 “Special Olympics European Football Week.”

Thousands of athletes — divided into male and female teams and including athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities — will take part in various football matches over the course of the week organized by the five participating countries: Italy, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and France.

While those with intellectual disabilities are playing alongside those without disabilities, it's still “the same rules, same competition,” said Colin Kenny, a member of Special Olympics International’s fundraising team.

He told CNA that the aim of the Special Olympics “is to improve the lives of people with intellectual disability,” giving them access to sports as well as other programs, such as those geared toward education and health programs.

“But, the big thing we are working on now is also to get the wider community, people without disabilities, involved in the movement. So, we can make an inclusive society.”

“People can work, play sports together, go to the cinema together,” Kenny said, so “that there’s no barriers anymore.”

The Special Olympics was founded in the 1960s by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the Knights of Columbus has been involved in the initiative from t he start. In 2000, the movement launched first Special Olympics European Football Week.

The Knights continue to be involved with the Special Olympics, including sponsoring the European branches of the initiative.

Ludwig said he felt it was “providential” that this year's event is taking place during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Holy Year, he said, is a time in which “we reach out to individuals, and show that everyone in the world has talents, God-given talents, that they can use, and that although we may be different in some ways, we are alike and are all God’s children.”

“There’s a special relationship between the KoC and Special Olympics,” Ludwig continued. “Both of us, as organizations, are very much concerned about fostering the dignity of man,” along the lines of the teachings by St. John Paul II.

CNA also spoke with some of the athletes taking part in the weekend games, including Vincenzo, the goalkeeper for the Italian A.S.A.D. (assocazione sportiva Biella team).

Vincenzo, who spoke shyly, said he enjoyed playing. He already previously competed in the Los Angeles games last year, which he said had been an “ottimo opportunita” — “an excellent opportunity.”

Martino, who plays defense, said his past experiences playing in the Special Olympics “remain in his heart,” and is “truly happy to be part of this great family” which gives so much.

The event “is all about the footballers on the pitch,” Kenny told CNA. “It’s great to see that they are enjoying themselves. They’re very passionate about what they do.”

“If you were here today, you would see that what we do is not just sports for sports sake: it’s real passion, it’s real competition, it’s like the champion’s league final. It’s so important to all the athletes.”

Alexey Gotovskiy contributed to this article.