When the first Special Olympics for the mentally retarded was held at Chicago's Soldier Field in 1968, the games were attended by only a few of founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver's friends and 12 other spectators. There were no celebrities, no TV cameras and only a few athletes from three nations.
Now swollen to 6,000 contestants from 104 nations, the event will be celebrated this week in an ABC prime-time special, "The International Special Olympics All-Star Gala" (8 p.m. Thursday on Channel 13).
Among celebrities on the show are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Beatty, Bob Seger, Kirstie Alley, Herb Alpert, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, rocker Jon Bon Jovi, pop star Debbie Gibson, and Chris Burke, star of the ABC series "Life Goes On," who, like the character he plays, has Down's syndrome, and who may owe his career to the impact of the games.
The games themselves -- swimming and diving, track and field, basketball, gymnastics, softball, volleyball and equestrian events -- were covered Aug. 3 by ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
The special, with footage shot by 45 camera crews in Minneapolis-St. Paul, as well as in such far-flung locales as Katmandu and Athens, will profile the lives of four of the athletes from disparate backgrounds, following them from home to glory on the athletic field in the Twin Cities.
Bobby Shriver, executive producer of the show and the son of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, said the public's attitude toward the retarded has come a long way since his mother founded the event.
Shriver said in a telephone interview. "We've gone now from calling a retarded person an idiot to saying, 'There's a special person.' That's a revolution."
The Special Olympics, held every four years, with local and regional competition in the interim, got its first TV break in 1987 when ABC decided to cover it on "Wide World of Sports" and preceded it with a celebrity-studded 90-minute special.