They Came Up Roses

The athletes at the Special Olympics for the mentally retarded couldn't all win gold medals, but the hope and joy they brought to South Bend made them champions in a much larger sense
August 16, 1987

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 7½-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."

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?' "

Everywhere you looked in South Bend there was a triumph of spirit. And humor. And humanity. Jorge Dalmau, 23, from Guadalajara, Mexico, finished seventh in the 800-meter run. His mother, Martha, smiled proudly as he stood on the awards platform and received his ribbon along with the silk rose that went to each competitor. Asked if her son would be disappointed with seventh, Martha Dalmau looked surprised and then shook her head, laughing. "As he runs, Jorge was saying, 'Where is my mother?' " she recounted. " 'Go, Jorge, run fast!' we yell. But he stops to wave. 'Don't stop! You must keep going!' I try to hide, but he is waving at me and the other runners are passing him. It doesn't matter. He will tell everybody he finish in first place no matter where he finish. It's all the first place.

"You know, it was the first time he flies, coming here. He is very afraid, but we tell him, 'Jorge, we cannot drive and we cannot go by the train, so if you do not fly in the airplane, you don't go to the Special Olympics.' He thinks about that, then he asks me: 'Can I take a piece of cloud?'

" 'What do this mean?' I ask him.

" 'In the airplane. Can I reach out the window and take a piece of cloud?' " Martha Dalmau smiled at this memory.

" 'Of course,' I tell him. 'No problem.' "

Jorge came over then and showed her his seventh-place ribbon. He was well pleased with it, and she asked him where he had finished. He smiled the smile of a man who had been to the clouds and touched them. It was a look that was on a lot of faces around South Bend last week. Then Jorge Dalmau said, "Primero."

SEVEN PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE; KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5Medals and ribbons bedecked the finishers in the men's 800-meter walk (above), and all the 4,717 athletes who took part in the games, including a young wheelchair racer (upper left), were given heartfelt hugs as well as flowers of silk. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE; KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5Shriver gave Duarte (above, left) a medal; TV's Johnson marched with the Florida team. THREE PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE; KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5Olympians: A Kansas shot-putter reached for the sky; a wheelchair athlete raced for the line; a high jumper cleared the bar. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE; KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5A determined Kenyan runner (10) struggled for the lead; relief was just a squeeze away. THREE PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE; KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5Walking a balance beam is a test for anyone; assurance was always at hand; Emiliano told his family in Paraguay about his gold medal.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)