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Image: Ron DeSantis
Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2022 (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 24, 2022.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

Special Olympics forced to back down following DeSantis’ threats

What kind of politician threatens the Special Olympics in an election year? As it turns out, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is exactly that kind of politician.


In the early part of his presidency, Donald Trump presented Congress with a budget that tried to eliminate all federal funding for the Special Olympics. It wasn’t altogether clear why the Republican and his team sought such a goal, and the then-president eventually tried to take credit for solving a problem his own White House had created.

Three years later, the Special Olympics — which would appear to be entirely apolitical — is making headlines again, not because a Republican wants to cut its funding, but because a Republican threatened to impose harsh fines on the organization. The Orlando Sentinel reported:

Florida threatened to fine Special Olympics International $27.5 million for requiring 5,500 participants at the USA Games in Orlando to be vaccinated against COVID, prompting the organization to drop the mandate. “There needs to be a choice in this regard,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at an event in Orlando surrounded by a cheering crowd that included athletes for the games set to begin Sunday.

So let me get this straight. Florida’s Republican governor and his administration threatened the Special Olympics — in an election year — because the organization wanted to help protect athletes with intellectual disabilities from a dangerous contagion during a pandemic.

MSNBC opinion columnist Eric Garcia stressed the special significance of protecting these competitors.

A study last year that surveyed almost 65 million patients across 547 health care organizations revealed that having an intellectual disability “was the strongest independent risk factor for presenting with a Covid-19 diagnosis and the strongest independent risk factor other than age for Covid-19 mortality.” Another study in the United Kingdom found that, if infected, people with Down Syndrome are five times more likely to be hospitalized and 10 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than the general population.

A vaccine mandate for Special Olympics athletes, Garcia added, “is a way of keeping the athletes the Special Olympics serves alive.”

Florida’s GOP governor, however, saw the organization’s policy as evidence of a “vaccine mandate,” which he’s launched a political crusade against. Special Olympics didn’t want to have to pay the Sunshine State more than $27 million in unjust fines, so it succumbed to the bully and gave DeSantis the policy he demanded.

Explaining the shift in policy, a Special Olympics spokesperson said, “We don’t want to fight. We want to play.” Oddly enough, DeSantis didn’t want to fight, either. He wanted to control, regardless of the health consequences.

USA Today’s Mike Freeman said this represented a “disgraceful new low” for the Florida governor, which seemed more than fair given the circumstances.