They make a special contribution

June 27, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Is it too late to change the theme? "It's all about attitude" is perfectly suitable, but a woman with Down syndrome offered Special Olympics president Tim Shriver an even better motto.

"Label me able," she said.

That's all the 7,000 athletes at the 1999 Special Olympics Summer World Games ask. And after more than three decades of competing on an international stage, that's what people with mental retardation deserve.

The biggest sporting event in the world this year began last night with Opening Ceremonies hosted by comedian Billy Crystal. Of course, by conventional standards, the World Games isn't a typical sporting event at all.

Medals are awarded, but Shriver explained the difference at a news conference yesterday, speaking with the passion and eloquence of his late uncles, Robert and John Kennedy.

If you're looking for labels, looking for winners and losers, looking for the traditional Olympic ideals of faster, higher, stronger, then you've come to the wrong place, Shriver said.

"We're not looking for the best," he said. "We're not going to celebrate you if you're the smartest and fastest. We're going to celebrate everyone that comes if you do your best. Excellence means doing your best, and nothing else.

"The whole sporting world struggles with it. They don't understand it. They keep saying, `What's the record? What is the most outstanding accomplishment?'

"The most outstanding accomplishment is when someone beats their personal best. End of story."

Shriver recalled the first international games in 1968, organized by his mother, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Nearly 1,000 athletes from the United States, Canada and France came to Chicago for two days of competition in track and field and aquatics.

The growth of Special Olympics isn't just measured in numbers, though these Games will feature athletes from 150 countries, competing for nine days in 19 sports.

Initially, it was feared that athletes couldn't run a 440-yard dash, and lifeguards stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the pool to prevent drownings. No more.

The star of yesterday's news conference was Billy Quick, a Special Olympics marathoner from High Point, N.C. He upstaged quite a trio -- NBA star Grant Hill, supermodel Kathy Ireland and actress Sharon Lawrence.

"I have the responsibility of running 26 1/2 miles -- that's a big job," Quick said with a high, infectious laugh.

Quick teased Hill -- "we became friends way back when we had longer hair" -- and talked about his own stardom within the Special Olympics community.

"I know [the athletes] see my face everywhere," Quick said. "I have to be on my Ps and Qs. If someone sees me do something wrong, just tell me about it. I'll be glad to straighten out."

Hours later, Quick participated in the Opening Ceremonies, marching on a hot, muggy Carolina night into Carter-Finley Stadium, the home of North Carolina State football. Athletes came from Palestine, from Guatemala, from Zimbabwe. Libya's one representative waved from his wheelchair.

Rock star Jon Bon Jovi accompanied the New Jersey delegation, NFL star Jerome Bettis the Pennsylvanian athletes and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger the Chinese. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and state Del. Mark K. Shriver walked with the 67 athletes from Maryland.

"I was first introduced to Special Olympics when I was in high school," said Hill, the Games' honorary chairman. "I took a leadership class when I was a senior. Part of the class curriculum was to volunteer. We volunteered at the local northern Virginia Special Olympics at Annandale High School It has inspired me ever since."

Hill is the embodiment of athletic grace, Ireland of physical beauty, Schwarzenegger of human strength. They want for nothing. But Special Olympics leaves them enriched.

Ireland, the mother of a 5-year-old boy and 8-month-old girl, volunteered at her first World Games four years ago. She spoke yesterday of how the experience affected her reaction after she learned during her second pregnancy that her baby was at high risk for Down syndrome.

The result proved to be a false positive.

"My husband is an emergency-room physician -- I knew the implications," Ireland said. "I knew many of these people have to have serious surgery right away at birth. I knew many do not live that long. And I knew many go on to long, wonderful lives.

"I was so grateful to Special Olympics. I didn't have an [amniocentesis]. There was a 1-in-1,000 chance of a miscarriage. I did not want to take that chance. I just knew that God does not make mistakes."

A reporter asked Ireland to give Lawrence a preview of the Summer World Games -- this is the "NYPD Blue" star's first exposure to Special Olympics.

"It's something you have to experience. It's difficult to put into words. There's so much emotion, so much genuine emotion. It comes from the athletes," Ireland said.

"Many of the athletes were on my flight. They were excited, cheering, so fired up for this. It was so great to see them express their feelings.

"In '95, walking into Opening Ceremonies, everyone was in tears. I don't think there was a dry eye.

"It will change you. It will change the way you look at yourself. It will change the way you look at others. It will give you a whole new appreciation of life."

God does not make mistakes.

Label them able.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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