As a spectator watching the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, I felt overcome by joy and gratitude. I have been to many sporting events in my lifetime — track and field in particular — and I don’t usually feel overjoyed watching countless heats of various versions of foot races.
I feel proud when my children win a race, but I am by no means overcome with joy after a long day in the hot sun at a track meet.
However, after each heat of the 50-yard dash at the Special Olympics World Games, happiness filled my cup. The athletes smiled sweetly and waved wildly to the crowd as they walked by to take their place on the starting line.
Each of the athletes, all of whom were either intellectually or physically challenged, or both, gave it their all. Some of the athletes faced blindness, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy as they raced down the track.
The crowd in the grandstands at USC’s track and field stadium erupted with loud applause. The applause did not stop until the last athlete crossed the finish line. Music played in between races, further energizing the crowd and building community with people from all over the world who together cheered on the special needs athletes.
These amateur athletes for whom the crowd cheered were not in it for fame, money or corporate sponsorship. Their passion for their sport — be it track, swimming or equestrian (all of which I watched) — showed on their faces when they finished their particular event. Their smiles said it all.
The volunteer spirit of the world games also moved me. There were 30,000 volunteers who came out to organize events and help athletes be their best.
Once I saw a volunteer push an athlete who was unable to walk to the starting line of the 50-yard dash in a wheelchair. The volunteer gently helped the athlete out of his wheelchair and put him on the ground, on all fours.
When the gun sounded to start the race, I watched in awe as the athlete bear-crawled (on his hands and knees) all the way down to the finish line. This young man’s heart to compete in the Special Olympics World Games overcame any disability that he had, for the moment.
He triumphed in crossing the finish line even if he didn’t come in first, second or third place. And, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the kind volunteer who helped him at starting line.
Other volunteers made it possible for athletes to swim in races at the Uytengsu Aquatic Center at USC. Some of the athletes who were unable to dive off of a starting block received help from a volunteer.
A volunteer helped these athletes get into the water to start their race, and essentially made it possible for that athlete to participate in the World Games. Watching special needs athletes swim the butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle with grace and ease thrilled the spectators and inspired us all.
It was beautiful to watch how gracefully they swam 25 lengths across the pool. Interestingly enough, countries were allowed to put together co-ed teams for the IM relay. After all, the Special Olympics is about inclusion, respect and dignity for all.
Lastly, I watched athletes from around the globe compete in equestrian events at Griffith Park. At this venue, spectators could not clap or use any audible applause for fear of distracting the horseback riders and their horses.
Instead, spectators shook their hands in the air, using “happy hands” to give praise to an athlete when they had finished an event. A quiet and therefore peaceful arena helped spectators to appreciate the athletes’ concentration while maneuvering a horse through the “working trails” course.
Like in the track and aquatic events, I admired the equestrian athletes who had worked so hard to get to the Special Olympics World Games and fulfill their dreams.
The Special Olympics World Games highlighted the goodness of humanity, and for that, I am thankful.