Special Olympics: 7,000 stories of achievement

The unifying spirit of sport returns to the Greek capital this summer with the Special Olympics World Summer Games Athens 2011 taking place from June 25 to July 4. The event will bring together 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from approximately 170 countries to compete in 22 Olympic-type sports. More than breaking world records, the upcoming games are about 7,000 stories of great personal achievement.

Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, the Special Olympics has grown into a global movement of 3.7 million athletes taking part in an average of 130 daily events around the world.

The World Games are the flagship event of the Special Olympics and are organized every two years, alternating between winter and summer games. The Athens event will be the first following Kennedy Shriver?s death in 2009. After Greece, the games will travel to Korea.

Presenting the summer games to local and international media in Athens on April 14, Brady Lum, president of Special Olympics International, noted the event?s character of ?social change? and ?solidarity,? while praising athletes ?defying unbelievable challenges.?

Also honoring the efforts of the athletes was Joanna Despotopoulou, president of the Organizing Committee Special Olympics Athens 2011, who also noted that the games will counter the morose mood that is so prevalent in Greece today.

Traveling to Athens for the summer event are 350 officials and personalities from around the world, among them singer Stevie Wonder, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor is married to Maria Shriver, the daughter of the Special Olympics founder) and Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. Also expected to attend are NBA players and Olympic Games medal winners.

While the event has so far earned the support of a record number of 25,000 volunteers, the organizers are stressing that the games will help to boost the suffering local economy. Besides the athletes and their coaches, family members and friends are expected to make the trip to Athens and visit other parts of the country as well.

Prior to the games, the athletes will be hosted by a variety of hotel establishments around in Greece as part of the ?Host Town? program. They will spend four days getting acquainted with the country and its traditions before returning to Athens to prepare for the games. The program is one of many non-sporting events taking place within the framework of the games.

Leading the creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies is choreographer Fokas Evangelinos, while composer and singer Stefanos Korkolis has composed an original score. Korkolis is also the composer of ?When a Dream Comes True,? the Special Olympics anthem.

Admission to the events is free, though tickets will have to be purchased by those wishing to attend the opening and closing ceremonies, which will take place at the Panathenaic Stadium, known as the Kallimarmaro.

The importance of the games in people?s lives is highlighted by the fact that delegations from countries such as Japan, Syria, Egypt and Bahrain, for instance, are expected in Athens despite turbulence back home. In Athens, they will be greeted by fellow athletes including Nadia Lianou, president of Special Olympics Athletes Hellas.

At the media event, Lianou, a former track and field athlete who is now a cyclist, spoke warmly about her experience: Besides sport and competition, she said, being a member of the Special Olympics movement has given her the opportunity to travel and make new friends.

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