Following a bumpy night of travel and accommodation problems for some of this year's competitors, the Special Olympics World Games got underway in Los Angeles July 25 and run through Aug. 2.
These are the first games to be held in the United States in 16 years. The competition will draw thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities from 177 countries to compete in 25 different sports, according to the Special Olympics organization.
Seven thousand athletes will participate in this year's games, according to the organization. They'll be supported by 3,000 coaches, 30,000 volunteers, 5,000 "honored guests," and an estimated 500,000 spectators.
The athletes range in age from 8 to 71, according to the Associated Press. The United States has the largest delegation, according to Special Olympics USA, with 481 representatives. That includes 300 athletes.
Here's some background on the Special Olympics and a few highlights to check out:
What is the Special Olympics?
The Special Olympics is an organization that holds sporting events for people of all ages with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics World Games, held every four years, features competitors facing each other in various age- and skill-based divisions. The top finishers receive gold, silver and bronze medals, but every competitor gets a participant ribbon and gets to stand on the victory platform. The emphasis at the Special Olympics is on inclusion over competition.
The event was created by President John F. Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver to help those with intellectual disabilities live fuller lives. She held the first pilot version in her own backyard before it became an international event in 1968.
“Shriver had the idea that if lives of intellectually-disabled athletes had the opportunity to be faced with situations like the rest of us, that this would help them in the real world," Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson said at a news conference.
Johnson also founded California Special Olympics. “She wanted the lives of intellectually disabled to be enhanced," Johnson said. "There are probably many lonely intellectually-disabled athletes who sat alone in a room, who have nothing to do. They needed the opportunity to be more, to be the best they could be."
When does it start?
You can see the full Special Olympics World Games schedule here. Various entertainment and ceremonies leading to the athletic events began Saturday, July 25. The Special Olympics also offers a free app to help you make your own schedule.
Saturday's events kicked off with basketball, aquatics, track-and-field, bocce ball, soccer and tennis in the morning. Final events are Saturday, Aug. 1. Those will include the half-marathon, powerlifting, sailing and more. The closing ceremonies will cap the games on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 6 p.m.
How can I see the Special Olympics events?
Attend in person
- All Special Olympics competitions are free and open to the public. You can see a guide available for spectators here.
- The games are set to be held at 27 venues throughout the L.A. area, including the L.A. Coliseum (home to the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics), the L.A. Convention Center, UCLA, USC, Lucky Strike at L.A. Live, the Balboa Sports Center in Encino, Griffith Park and several locations in Long Beach. See a full listing of the venues, athletes, and sporting events schedule here.
Tickets for the opening ceremonies on Saturday, July 25 at 5 p.m. are on sale. There, you might catch a glimpse of First Lady Michelle Obama, who'll be taking part in the ceremonies. It will also be broadcast live on ESPN.
Performers at the opening ceremony include Stevie Wonder, Avril Lavigne and Nicole Scherzinger. O.A.R. and Cody Simpson have also teamed up to create a new theme song for the Special Olympics, "Reach Up," and they're set to perform at the opening ceremony.
Other celebrity guests include Jimmy Kimmel, Eva Longoria, Yao Ming and Olympians Michael Phelps and Greg Louganis.
The Special Olympics will hold festivals with a variety of entertainment to complement the games, including music, dance and more. UCLA's festival will be at Wilson Plaza, while USC's will be at Alumni Park. The festival runs 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on the opening and closing days, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. the rest of the games. Check out the line up of events here.
Watch on TV
- ESPN is set to air a daily half-hour program devoted to the Special Olympics evenings at 7 p.m. Pacific.
- The Special Olympics are also recruiting team captains to lead groups of fans supporting their competitors in their "Fans In The Stands" program.
- They're also looking for volunteer deejays to entertain athletes and spectators.
How can I get there?
- You can always drive; there will be parking available at all events, but the Special Olympics and Metro are encouraging spectators to help reduce traffic by using Metro bus and rail services to attend the games. They note that this is the largest event held in the greater Los Angeles area since 1984's Olympic Games, so expect parking for the opening games in particular to be highly limited.
- Metro is also providing 12,000 Metro TAP cards to Special Olympics volunteers, officials and staff, as well as selling commemorative TAP cards to the public. Metro said in the release that they will bolster existing services during the Special Olympics if needed, and noted that they are fully accessible to the disabled.
3 events to watch:
1. Golf | Wilson & Harding Golf Courses | Dates & Times
The Special Olympics includes athletes of all different skill levels with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics' Peter Wheeler called attention at a news conference to Ireland's Oliver Doherty as one of the Games' great stories. Doherty has a five handicap in golf.
"He had a single mother who was killed in a single car accident and because of the accident, Oliver was born. They had to use forceps during the birth, which caused brain damage and he was paralyzed," Wheeler said.
Doherty went on to be placed in an orphanage until he was adopted by a pub bouncer, Wheeler said. They watched golf together and Doherty's father encouraged him to squeeze a golf ball to strengthen his arms, before going out and playing golf.
"When Oliver was 14 years old, he was considered the best golfer in Ireland for his age. He was picked on by people who were not his friends, and they broke his fingers on both hands. He fought back, got involved with Special Olympics and in 2003 won his first event," Wheeler said. Doherty won the gold in those 2003 Special Olympics.
“Oliver is not a person with disabilities. He's a great golfer."
2. Sailing | Belmont Pier | Dates & Times
Athletes will take to the water in Long Beach beginning Monday to compete in the 5 level sailing competitions.
ESPN features the story of Greece's Ioannis Stratigopoulos, who said sailing has given him the opportunity to become a leader.
"When I'm out on the water, I am happy," Stratigopoulos said. "In other words, I'm in a boat and my life changes in that boat. And my life is good."
3. Powerlifting | Los Angeles Convention Center | Dates & Times
In downtown L.A., beginning Monday and running through the week, athletes will compete on pumping iron in the squat, bench press, deadlift and combination categories. The events will feature 4-time Special Olympian Jackie Barrett, 41, who will attempt to add to his 10 gold medals.
"The one thing people can learn from me," he says, is that "people with developmental disabilities or people with mental challenges have great potential to accomplish anything in life."