Column: Special Olympics opening ceremony is out of this world

Members of the U.S. team walk into the stadium for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games on Saturday at the Coliseum.

Members of the U.S. team walk into the stadium for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games on Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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For months, it has been little more than a curious promotional slogan, an attempt to excite the city about a Special Olympics World Games that many did not quite understand.

What exactly did “Reach Up L.A.” mean, anyway?

Then, on a deeply powerful Saturday night at the Coliseum, L.A. found out.

During the parade of athletes at the World Games’ opening ceremony, those with intellectual disabilities and disorders from around the world did a most appropriate, yet nonetheless amazing, thing.

They reached up.

There was no waving of giant flags, because this isn’t about competition between countries. There was no preening of recognizable stars, because this also isn’t about individual competition.


The 6,500 athletes from 165 delegations simply marched in with their arms stretched high, as if punching through stereotypes, stretching past expectations, reaching beyond dreams.

Some later waved their caps. Some pumped their fists. Some simply swayed and danced and basked in the constant cheers from 62,338 fans who were suddenly touching the sky with them.

From Greece to Austria to China to Cuba to New Zealand, from hugs to held hands to blown kisses, everybody reaching up.

When the United States was the last team to enter, the roar was enormous, but the biggest cheers seemed to come from the other athletes themselves, and chants of “U-S-A” were quickly drowned out in all the noise, because, you know, this just wasn’t about that.

“This is the most amazing place, a place we don’t always find in the rest of our world, ” said Jeneka Greif, a track athlete from Canada. “This is a place we are all equal.”


FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this column misspelled Canadian track athlete Jeneka Greif’s first name as Jeneke.



By the time the athletes had completed their long walk down a red carpet that cut through the middle of the Coliseum floor, it was clear they were far more than equals. For the next nine days, in 25 sports, representing the biggest athletic gathering in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympics — the Special Olympians will be Hollywood’s brightest stars.

Nobody the Dodgers or Angels will acquire at the trade deadline will match their courage. No USC or UCLA football player preparing for camp can match their strength.

“I’m the second Michael Jordan, you want to know why?” asked USA’s 6-foot-6 basketball center Andre Markfort. “My middle name is Michael and I used to live in a town in Minnesota called Jordan. I am serious!”

Yeah, few can also match their humor, as Markfort’s joke elicited howls of laughter from teammates as they prepared to walk the red carpet.

Special Olympians are cool. They just are. Their joyous presence overshadowed the sort of opening ceremony stuff that is usually the big story during traditional Olympics.

President Barack Obama spoke via video — “You represent the very best of the human spirit” — but equally impressive was David Egan, a former Special Olympics swimmer who was the first person to take the stage and immediately began leading the crowd in cheers.


First Lady Michelle Obama showed up to close the ceremonies with words of inspiration, but equally as neat were the Uganda athletes who prepared for the ceremonies next door by boogeying across the Sports Arena floor.

Stevie Wonder sang, Maria Shriver remembered her mother and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the reciting of the Special Olympics oath was given by Kansas City Chiefs running back and former Special Olympian Jamaal Charles, who suffers from a learning disability. But equally compelling was watching the athletes interact with each other throughout the afternoon.

Some just walked around wide-eyed and grinning. They are the only world-class athletes who actually want you to take their picture. They are the only ones who declare strongly that they want to win then quietly admit that it really doesn’t matter.

“Obviously, I want to win, ” said Matthais Attard, a swimmer from Malta. “But if I can’t, I’m just glad for the chance to hear the cheers. The cheers are pure awesome.”

Anna-Louise Kassulke, the leader of the Australian delegation, said “These athletes are always getting excluded from different sectors in their lives, but here, they’re brought inside by sport at its purest. All the controversy in sports around the world? Not at the Special Olympics.”

Well, that’s not exactly true, not this week. Organizers here deserve a bit of a wrist slap for creating isolated nightmares for athletes and spectators in recent days.


Transportation problems, including a lack of local buses, caused long delays for arriving athletes Tuesday night, resulting in delegations stranded for hours at LAX. Hundreds of athletes were even forced to sleep on the gym floor at Loyola Marymount’s Gersten Pavilion while waiting to be transported to the appropriate housing. Organizers initially failed to supply the stranded ones with ample food and water, reportedly resulting in fights over food.

Can you imagine the world outcry if this were the sort of welcome given athletes in traditional Olympics? Actually, there is no need to imagine. Just think Sochi.

Late Saturday afternoon, thousands of fans felt the athletes’ pain. Because many Coliseum gates were closed for the security of dignitaries that included the first lady, the incoming crowd was funneled into a few north end gates. The result was lines stretching hundreds deep, requiring more than an hour wait for fans jammed together under a blazing sun. It wasn’t pretty and again, one has to wonder, what sort of worldwide humiliation would be felt by the city of Los Angeles if this were a traditional Olympics?

Of course, the fact that this is the Special Olympics will allow the organizers to avoid much criticism, because there is no humiliation here. There are no losers here. There are not even any frowns here. Once sweaty spectators navigated their way into the Coliseum, they were greeted by high-fiving athletes as they walked to their seats, and how can you still be mad after that?

The one constant throughout the ceremony was the Special Olympics oath, looming on an end zone scoreboard.

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

That scoreboard was directly underneath the flickering Olympic caldron. By the end of the night, after the cauldron had been lit with the final torch being held by 1984 caldron lighter Rafer Johnson and Special Olympian Destiny Sanchez, the words were almost close enough to touch the flame. Actually, they did. Reached right on up.