The Special Olympics have come a long way since 1968, when the first international games were held at Chicago's Soldier Field. Conceived by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, now the chairman of the Special Olympics, and originally funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, the games were an offshoot of a backyard summer camp that Eunice and Sargent Shriver held in the mid-'60s for the mentally handicapped. "There was a tremendous sense of isolation back then," says Eunice, whose sister, Rosemary Kennedy, is mentally retarded. "There was so much ignorance. They didn't think the mentally retarded could play team sports, because in team sports you have to make judgements, and be quick and share—all the things you don't do in the 100-meter dash."
Approximately 1,000 athletes afflicted with mental retardation congregated in Chicago for those inaugural games. They came from 26 states and Canada to participate in three events. The LaSalle Hotel served as the first Olympic Village, and no more than a few hundred spectators attended the opening ceremonies. Almost none of them were parents. "If there were 20 parents there, that's generous," says Herb Kramer, the assistant to the chairman of the Special Olympics, who has been with the program since its inception. "Parents had not yet learned that they could be proud of their mentally retarded kids."
The scene in South Bend was a little different. On Aug. 2, 50,000 people shoehorned into Notre Dame Stadium for the opening ceremonies to see Whitney Houston, Barbara Mandrell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, William Hurt, Susan St. James, Frank Gifford, Oprah Winfrey, Marvin Hamlisch, John Denver, Marlee Matlin, Don Johnson, Mary Lou Retton and Bart Conner host a nationally televised extravaganza. The television show, which was taped and aired the next night, ran a tidy two hours. The actual performance was clocked at 4 hours, 23 minutes, which the Special Olympians themselves spent either lined up outside the stadium waiting to march in or standing, sitting, or sleeping in the infield. It was interminable.
No doubt the telecast will prove to be a fund-raising and—better—a consciousness-raising bonanza. But it left the ISSOG open to charges of insensitivity. "You have to be very careful to design these things for the athletes," said one concerned father, John Loerch of Mandan, N.D. "You can't be looking somewhere down the road."
Actor William Hurt, one of the few celebrities to stay on an extra two days, agreed. "I didn't think I'd have to bat the hype out of my eyes so much to see the point," he said. "But if you stay with it, you can't not see the kids. There may be smoke, but they just keep coming at you. In my business, the idea is to jump, and maybe someone will catch you. Here, they're jumping all over the place."
The intensity of effort is overwhelming. Juan Alberto Duarte of Paraguay ran the 3,000-meter race so laboriously that at first it was difficult to watch. The distance had nothing to do with it: That is the way he walks and trains every day of his life. One of the many surprising things about the Special Olympics is that after a while you stop seeing what the athletes cannot do and start concentrating on what they can do. Duarte could run. He finished ninth out of nine in his heat but earned the loudest ovation of the day from the spectators at Notre Dame's Cartier Field. Because there are usually only eight runners per race, no ninth-place ribbon was available. So at the awards ceremony, Eunice Shriver gave Duarte a gold medal.
Everybody wins something, WINNERS ALL is a frequent headline of stories on the Special Olympics. If a Special Olympian finishes seventh, he is the "seventh-place winner." Same with fifth, sixth, et cetera. And each finisher is greeted by a designated "hugger," a volunteer who either embraces, high-fives or puts an arm around the athlete after the Special Olympian crosses the line.
The Special Olympics has done incalculable good in focusing public attention on mental retardation. Seven million people in this country are afflicted to some degree, and 300 million others have the disability worldwide. " Special Olympics is essentially 'reverse mainstreaming,' " says Rutherford Turnbull, a professor of law at the University of Kansas. "Mainstreaming is putting mentally handicapped people among people who don't have a disability, either in the workplace or through public education. The Special Olympics does the reverse; it invites people who don't have a disability to come in and interact with people with mental retardation. The result is the same. They learn from each other, and attitudes are changed. People who have fear and prejudices lose those fears and prejudices."
"It's an incredibly liberating movement," says ISSOG's Kramer, who remembers that when the first Special Olympics was held 19 years ago, very few of the athletes had ever been in a swimming pool because it was believed you could not teach people with mental retardation to swim. "We don't even know what the limits of the mentally handicapped are, but we're testing those limits every year. We used to have a sport called the Frisbee disc, but our athletes outgrew it. We've added soccer, basketball, softball. We refuse to say that the Special Olympics will play something like basketball. You're going to learn to play and learn to play by the rules."
And they do learn. The real lesson of the Special Olympics is about testing limits. Personal limits and collective ones. Jim Santos, the head track and field coach for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, is now in charge of track events for the Special Olympics. In three years he has added the 100-meter dash, the shot put and the running long jump to the track and field program, and when the next summer games are held, in 1991, he would like to see the marathon, cross-country and a 10-kilometer run included also. "Our first emphasis is that our athletes complete the events without fouling out," says Santos, whose 13-year-old son, Dallas, is mentally handicapped and partly blind. "I remember in Dallas's first race he finished last, and I was pretty disappointed. But his coach told me it was the best he'd ever run. They'd been working two months on Dallas staying in his own lane while he was running, and the first thing Dallas did when he finished—I was his hugger—was look back and say, 'Lines, Dad?' "