· Vatican City ·

Athletica Vaticana with US Special Advisor on International Disability Rights

The inclusive power of sport

 The inclusive power of sport  ING-008
23 February 2024

The US Special Advisor on International Disability Rights, Sara Minkara, met with the Vatican Athletics team to discuss disability, inclusion and the power of sport to transform lives. Among the athletes representing “the Pope’s team” was runner Paul Gabriele Weston, who explained Athletica Vaticana’s mission to Ms Minkara. Also present was Alessandro Gisotti, Vice Editorial Director of Vatican Media. “Events like the one organized by Athletica Vaticana,” he said, “also help the media gain awareness of the extent to which sports can help foster inclusion on every level.” Addressing Ms Minkara, he stressed the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue in building a society in which no one is excluded. The event took place a few months after Athletica Vaticana and the US Embassy to the Holy See’s joint initiative to promote inclusion among marginalized communities through padel. On that occasion, two professional padel players from the US had travelled to Rome as special envoys.

Sport has “incredible power” to promote disability inclusion in society. That was the idea at the centre of a meeting on Tuesday, 20 February, between Sara Minkara, Special Advisor on disability at the US State Department, and Athletica Vaticana.

Ms Minkara, who was appointed directly by President Joe Biden, was in Rome to discuss preparations for an upcoming G7 summit on disability, to be hosted by Italy later this year.

Special Advisor Minkara spoke at length with Athletica Vaticana’s Sara Vargetto, an Italian high school student and athlete. Vargetto, who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was just 18 months old, uses a wheelchair to race. Recently, at the Italian indoor championships, she won gold medals in the 60m, 200m, and 400m events. Vargetto showed Special Advisor Minkara her racing wheelchair, and the pair shared an emotional embrace. At the end of their encounter, Vargetto gave Ms Minkara a relay baton signed by Pope Francis.

Speaking to Vatican News, Special Advisor Minkara said that sport allows people with disabilities to “really tap into their self-identity, their empowerment, their teamwork, their engagements with others.” Minkara, who is from a Muslim background, also discussed the “huge role” that religion can play in disability inclusion. She said that she always meets with faith leaders wherever she travels: “In Nigeria, we met with the head of a church and a mosque. In Egypt, we met with the Coptic church and Al-Azhar University. Everywhere we go, we always meet with a faith-based community.”

The Special Advisor also praised Pope Francis’ message of inclusion, saying that his speech at World Youth Day in Lisbon — which included a call to welcome “Everybody, everybody, everybody” — was “super important.”

Vargetto, meanwhile, told Vatican News that sport has given her “a second life, a rebirth.”

“It’s helped me a lot,” the Italian teenager said, “both physically, in terms of motor skills, and also psychologically, to grow, to mature.” Describing the recent Italian indoor championships, where she won three gold medals, Vargetto said that she was “really happy. I trained a lot, and it was really satisfying both for Athletica Vaticana and for me personally.”

Sara has been running with Athletica Vaticana for about five years. “It’s always an indescribable emotion to wear this uniform, these colours,” she said.

Also present at the meeting was Giampaolo Mattei, President of Athletica Vaticana. Noting that Special Advisor Minkara had just arrived from Paris, where she had met with the committee preparing for the Paralympic Games, Mattei stressed that “the goal of the Paralympic movement is not only to celebrate great events or distribute medals.”

“The central point,” he said, “is to demonstrate with actions, not just words, what the athletes can achieve when given the opportunity. And, if this applies to sports, it should apply even more to daily life.” The aim of the Paralympics, Mattei stressed, is thus to “transform our perception of disability in the daily life of a family, a school, a workplace.”

By Joseph Tulloch