You couldn't avoid the spirit of the event. Everywhere you turned it hit you like a fist. In South Bend restaurants parents of Special Olympians raised glasses in thankful toasts to their children and to God for giving them their children. Crusty coaches and ex-athletes assembled in watering holes to recall that this was how sports used to be: played for fun, for enrichment, for the intrinsic value of competition.
The spirit did not spring from the Olympic trappings—the flags and pageantry and medals—or the dignitaries, or the ABC cameras, or the celebrities, or the 16,000 volunteers on the campuses of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College, or the 325,000 people who attended the nine-day meet. It came from the athletes themselves. The 4,717 Special Olympians from 70 countries, miracle workers that they were, somehow stole their own show.
There were dozens of memorable moments—no, hundreds, thousands. More moments than there were events and people to watch them. A swimmer with Down's syndrome panicked during her 25-meter freestyle heat and grabbed the divider that separated her lane from the next. Had she advanced herself by using the divider, she would have been disqualified. The crowd quickly caught on and encouraged her, exhorting her to swim, long after the other competitors had finished. The panic ebbed. Suddenly the little girl beamed. You have never seen such a smile. She released the divider and swam to the end of the pool, touching just as the almost 1,000 spectators rose to their feet.
Emiliano Gomez, a swimmer from Paraguay, called home to tell his family that he had won the 50-meter backstroke. Cradling his medal in his fingers, he tapped it gently against the phone. "You hear it?" he said. "It's gold."
With 11:45 left, Team California was trailing Australia 8-0 in a soccer match when it scored a goal. At the opposite end of the field, California goalie Dan Speckman let out a whoop: "Whooey! We finally got one!" He shook his hips in a sort of victory shimmy, then turned to address the five or six spectators who were watching beyond a Cyclone fence. "At least we got one!" he shouted, raising his index finger. "We only need seven more. I think we can do it." Hope is a theme of these games, and Speckman's reservoir was vast. "Let's get nine more! We'll win. Come on, buddies!" Australia won the game and the gold medal, 9-1. But Speckman's spirit prevailed.
At the start of a 50-meter dash, 39-year-old Walter Robishaw from Rhode Island innocently peered up at the sky as he awaited the starting gun. The two other runners in his heat saw this and looked up too. There was nothing unusual up there, just the beautiful blue of a Hoosier sky, and Robishaw turned his attention back to the track. The moment he did so, the gun sounded. Off he went, leaving his two opponents flat-footed, pondering the heavens. About halfway through the race Robishaw slowed and waved back to the others: "Hey, come on. Hurry up!" He wanted to win, but he also wanted to race.
The soccer match between the Georgia team and Belgium was as dramatic a sporting event as the spectators are apt to see all year. At stake was the gold medal in Division B, and after 70 minutes of regulation play the score was 0-0. The teams then played two 7�-minute overtimes. These, too, were scoreless, though Georgia came close before failing to convert a two-man breakaway. So the match would be decided by penalty kicks. Georgia, which had not allowed a goal during the entire tournament, lost the shootout 3-1. The joy of the Belgian team juxtaposed with the anger and disappointment of the Georgians created a haunting moment. The Belgians sang, in English, "We are the champions," and carried their goalie on their shoulders. They ran the Belgian flag around the field and blew kisses to their fans. The coaches wiped tears from their eyes. One of the game's referees, who had brought a camera, posed for a picture with the youngest player on the Belgian team, 12-year-old Victor Lecomte, the Belgian star who had led his team with 11 goals in the tournament.
The Georgian team, meanwhile, watched silently, waiting to shake hands with the winners, angry not at the Belgian celebration but at themselves for what they perceived as letting down their coaches and their goalie. They proved resilient, however. A quarter of an hour later, as the Georgians received their silver medals, they were laughing, trying to cheer one another up.
"You know, I stand there at these awards ceremonies and cry," said a bystander. "It's not a question of feeling sorry for them. It's a feeling of happiness, and that somebody cares."
It was impossible not to care by the end of last week's VII International Summer Special Olympic Games. To care and to cheer and to marvel at the lessons these athletes had for us and for each other. Lessons about trying, about lack of pretention, about real adversity compared to what most of us call adversity. "They tell us more about ourselves and our deficiencies than they do about their own," said Steve Evangelista, the director of Rhode Island's Special Olympics program. Cuba was at the games, as were El Salvador, Nicaragua, China, Jordan, Israel, Zimbabwe and 63 other nations. But it was an apolitical week, devoid of nationalism in a way that the regular Olympics never are. Said one Mexican woman whose son had befriended a fellow Special Olympian from Korea: "They talk, and I don't know what they say, but they understand each other perfectly, these boys. They have a language all their own."