By John Rogers
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES _ Thousands of athletes said goodbye to Los Angeles on Sunday in an emotional closing ceremony for the Special Olympics marked by cheers, tears and pride.
After more than a week of games, athletes from more than 160 countries marched into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a giant red carpet to applause and praise for their efforts.
Some 6,500 athletes took part in contests ranging from weightlifting to soccer. Although not everyone won gold, silver or bronze medals, every competitor received a performance ribbon and a chance to take to the victory stand following their competition. An estimated 500,000 people turned out to watch at venues in and around Los Angeles.
A Twitter posting from Los Angeles police headquarters thanked the athletes “for inspiring us & showing what true strength is.”
“These games have been an unprecedented experience for Special Olympics and for the cause of bringing athletes with intellectual disabilities into the mainstream,” said Jan Palchikoff, a former Olympic rower and a Special Olympics executive. “This has been a great showcase of their abilities and a way to move forward.”
The colorful Special Olympics flag was lowered and presented to a delegation from Austria, where the Winter Games will be held in 2017.
A five-minute video showed highlights of the competitions and a flame that was lit in the Coliseum cauldron at the game opening was extinguished.
The athletes were welcomed on July 25 in a star-studded ceremony at the arena, site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics.
“My first visit to LA, but not my last. Definitely looking forward to coming back,” Icelandic soccer player Thor Haklidason said before the closing event.
“It’s truly been an unbelievable experience and a great time,” he continued, adding people from all over Southern California have embraced him and his teammates everywhere they’ve been.
Competitions included dozens of sports, including weightlifting, horseback riding, swimming and soccer.
Jamaica‘s Kirk D. Wint waved to the crowd as he stepped out of his wheelchair and into the starting block for his 50-meter race last week. Then he propelled himself down the track with the use of his hands because he’s unable to stand. He finished fourth.
In the 100-meter competition, Olivia Quigley of Brookfield, Wisconsin, ran with a red-white-and-blue scarf over her bald head and finished first in her division. Quigley, who has been undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, is scheduled for surgery soon.
Away from the competitions, thousands of athletes lined up at a medical centre at the University of Southern California for the games’ Healthy Athletes program. Before it ended Saturday, more than 500 people, including some who could not hear at all, received needed hearing aids. More than 600 received new prescription glasses and more than 4,000 got new shoes.
The Special Olympics, which began in 1968, was the brainchild of President John Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. That first year’s games in Chicago drew about 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada.
Organizers say this year’s Special Olympics will be the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world in 2015.