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Special Olympics World Games open at L.A. Memorial Coliseum

Special Olympics World Games open at L.A. Memorial Coliseum

Tens of thousands turned out Saturday for the opening ceremony of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The event got underway about 6:30 p.m. with stilt walkers and tumblers leading the parade of athletes into the noisy stadium. The delegation from Greece arrived first, as is traditionally the case in the Olympic Games.

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President Obama, via video, welcomed the participants and their fans. When Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a camp in her backyard 50 years ago, Obama said, no one knew how successful it would become.

First Lady Michelle Obama was in attendance and was expected to make remarks toward the end of the ceremony.

The delegations displayed all manner of colors in their uniforms, from canary yellow to fire-engine red to Austria's rose and white.

The athletes walked in as their nations were called in alphabetical order and were led to white folding chairs lined up in neat rows on the field. The small Cuban delegation got a big cheer from the crowd, and the Mexican delegation drew an even bigger response.

As host country, the large USA delegation came last and sparked a huge roar.

More than 6,500 athletes from 165 countries are expected to compete in the Games at various venues around the city through Aug. 2.

The games are being billed as the largest-ever gathering of nations in the city -- the 1984 Summer Games hosted 140 countries.

Throughout the afternoon, celebrity athletes and stars of screens small and large ambled along a blue carpet outside the nearby Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. They posed for photographers and repeated how delighted they were to be celebrating the games.

Maria Shriver, whose mother launched the Special Olympics movement in 1962, radiated excitement and glamor in black and ivory pants and jacket.

Ben Vereen, Vanessa Williams, Rafer Johnson, swimmer Donna de Varona, Lakers great James Worthy and towering Dikembe Mutombo, a 7-foot-2 NBA player from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were among those stopping to be interviewed by diminutive Caley Versfelt, 24, of Manhattan Beach, who serves as a global messenger for the games.

At a reception inside the adjacent Natural History Museum, members of athletic delegations from around the world mingled with celebrities and sponsors, nibbled on beef sliders and rice noodles amid the tableaux of caribou and Dall's sheep in the North American Mammal Hall.

Peggy Cherng, founder of sponsor Panda Express, said she was pleased that the games she has long supported had come to L.A.

"Being in a position to help feels really good," she said.

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The Games got their start as a summer day camp in the backyard of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose older sister had an intellectual disability.

Shriver believed sports could unify communities, and she was intent on giving people like her sister the opportunity to explore their physical talents.

The first international Special Olympics were held in Chicago in 1968. The movement now serves more than 4 million people around the world, draws corporate sponsors and has cities vying to host it. Some predict the L.A. Games will bring 500,000 spectators and $400 million to the area.

To make it to the world stage, athletes must have medaled in a state or regional competition, commit to six weeks of training in their sport and be at least 8 years old. Special consideration is given to those who have never attended the Games before.

The United States has the largest delegation, with 344 athletes who convened at UC Riverside to train for a few days before joining the other competitors in the athlete villages at USC and UCLA.

The spirit of the World Games relies on a unique structure. It shies away from nationalism. Delegates do not carry flags. Patrons watch events for free. Medals are given to the top three finishers, and ribbons are handed out to the rest. Inclusion is trumpeted, as are courage, unity, dignity, tolerance -- and joy.

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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