The California Special Olympics Summer Games have begun and 2,500 athletes, 2,500 volunteers and 600 coaches will create a healthy infield crowd at UCLA's Drake Stadium this weekend.
In the stands? Several hundred persons. That's all. For both days. If the weather holds.
And within such indifference hangs an affront to the vitality and salience of the event--an open, loving, caring liberty for the mentally handicapped. From these athletes, from families, foster homes and state facilities, will come Team California to compete with other states against 71 nations in the International Games at Notre Dame University next month.
"But we've never had a large spectator base," says Rafer Johnson. He's the remembered Olympian (decathlon gold medalist at Rome in 1960) and unforgettable final bearer of the torch for the Los Angeles Games who presides over the Special Olympics. "At Central Michigan University there wasn't a seat to be had . . . at Baton Rouge a crowd of 50,000 filled the stadium.
"But these are national and international meets. Somehow (in California) the total community does not feel involved in the whole. The crowds are just not there. But don't ask me why."
It could be our embarrassment. We prefer not to be reminded of flaws in human creation. We pay lip service to assistance and understanding but shy from being shocked by the misfortune of others. Heaven forbid we should be reminded of any God-given obligations.
And what athletic accomplishment can this be, this stumbling and lurching at some lesser level, when there's professional perfection on ESPN?
"Accomplishment? Here you are going to see athletes who have trained with dedication and perseverance and who have not stopped at the obstacles life has presented them," said Carol Lee Thorpe. She's director of resources and development for the Games. That means she stirs money and public awareness. "They cross the finish line with the same exhilaration that Carl Lewis crosses a finish line.
"One of our weightlifters is a high school student who can dead lift 400 pounds. Last year we had a basketball match that went down to one point and the last second and the final reverse layup.
"OK. So there was a 100 meter event where the winning time was four minutes. But when you see it being done by a person in a wheelchair, with poor motor control, with limited hand and arm strength, you're seeing competition with the same determination and effort of a four-minute mile.
"In a way, it's the ultimate accomplishment--because it's something that you and I will never get to do."
But achievement is one thing.
Appreciation must be the second portion of the reward.
"To win with a crowd behind you, rooting for you, cheering for you, drives anyone to higher levels," Thorpe says. "It enhances the win, it enhances the person and the experience."
These Special Olympics, Johnson and Thorpe believe, extend bilateral benefit.
For the athletes, for a moment, for a weekend, for however long the experience remains a memory, they are among peers and are as normal as the next person. They are released. They are whole.
For the spectator, there is the realization that the only true hopelessness and desperation of mental retardation is the ignorance of the able minded. For here are achievers. Here is a loving, joyous, considerate people of incredible innocence. Even more charming than us.
The athletes exact one more reward beyond their medals and ribbons. Thorpe has seen it. Johnson has felt it. Remember 1984 when he ran the Olympic flame around the Los Angeles Coliseum, jogged up 99 steps and funneled a flame that opened the XXIII Olympiad?
Panting, sweating, fierce and proud, Johnson stood as part of a tradition.
He also displayed what his special athletes show as they stand in victory and competition.
A special dignity.
California Special Olympics Summer Games, Drake Stadium, UCLA, We stwood. Saturday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Free admission. (213) 453-7622.