The University of Southern California’s Loker Track Stadium is hallowed ground in the world of college track and field, home to an unprecedented number of national and Olympic champions. On a recent, sunny Saturday in June long after the track season had ended, a particularly inspirational and determined group of Olympians stood at Loker, waiting for the pop of the starter’s gun. They were the athletes of The Southern California Special Olympics 2014 Summer Games Invitational. And while their efforts are not as acclaimed as those of others who’ve crossed the finish line here, they were a powerful reminder of the joy of sports and the strength of the human spirit.
If you’ve never been to the Special Olympics either as a fan, like I was this year, or as a volunteer, this may be a good time to get involved. Next year, Los Angeles will host The Special Olympics World Games 2015. Seven thousand athletes from 177 countries will participate in 25 sports at the event, which will take place July 25 through August 2, 2015 at USC and other locations.
Southern California Special Olympics organizers used the June 2014 event, which hosted more than 1,200 Special Olympic athletes, as a test run for next year’s competition. Most notably, nearly 160 international athletes from 12 countries were invited to compete. Sports included aquatics, athletics (track and field), basketball, bocce, golf and gymnastics. The Games also included a festival area, featuring live entertainment and sponsor-run booths. Part of that was “Healthy Athletes”, which event organizers believed was the largest health screening ever for special needs individuals. Clinical volunteers provided up to six free health screenings for Special Olympic athletes. Services included overall health counseling, as well as individual exams for vision (glasses were made on the spot), dental, hearing, feet, physical fitness and nutrition. Organizers plan to use data compiled from the event for health research devoted to special needs individuals.
The athletes’ enthusiasm for sports, and for life, is contagious at the Games. Special Olympics organizers hope to create acceptance and inclusion through their programs and to encourage athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to play together. For information on becoming a Special Olympics volunteer, contact the Special Olympics Southern California.