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Lighting a Special Flame
Aided by a network of Yale alumni, New Haven two years ago won the competition to be the site of the 1995 Special Olympics. As the world’s biggest sporting event of the year, it will be putting the facilities of both the University and the city to the test and, backers hope, bringing them closer together.

Al Kenney works the numbers over and over again: 20,000 heads of lettuce, 3,480 pounds of yellow squash, 125,000 oranges, 435 pounds of smoked turkey breast, 3,000 pounds of uncooked rice. “Cooked, that’s 9,000 pounds,” he says, flipping through the thick stack of computer printouts of menus and ingredients spread out before him. As he scrutinizes the numbers one last time, a knot forms between his eyebrows; you can see him thinking. Kenney, who is Yale’s director of dining halls, normally has his hands full just coordinating the meals consumed daily by students and faculty on campus. But now he’s also planning the food for a very large party—for 9,500 guests who plan to stay for nine days.

The guests are the 7,200 athletes and 2,300 coaches from 140 nations who will descend upon New Haven on July 1 for the Ninth Special Olympics World Summer Games. The Games—for athletes with mental retardation—will be the largest sporting event in the world in 1995, and are expected to bring half a million spectators to New Haven to watch the athletes compete in 19 sports.

These World Games will be on a scale that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the wife of R. Sargent Shriver ’38, might only have dreamed of when she first conceived of the Special Olympics in the early 1960s. At the time, she was running a day camp for mentally retarded young people, and she was struck by how much more capable they were in athletics than most experts gave them credit for. In 1968, Shriver staged the first Special Olympics Games, at Soldier Field in Chicago, and the event has grown exponentially as it moved from site to site around the world every four years.

The Ninth World Games promises to be the biggest edition yet, and the spectators are likely to witness some first-class sport. “These are tremendous athletes,” World Games Executive Director Peter Wheeler says. “We have one powerlifter who is world-ranked, and a marathon runner whose time isn’t far from the women’s world record.”

Among the local contestants will be Wendi Little of Guilford, who will be playing volleyball on the U.S. team. In addition to her athletic prowess, Wendi serves on the Board of the Special Olympics, and has worked for almost two years on planning for the Games. “What the Games have given to her and to us is more than I could ever have thought,” says her father, Horace Little. “When Wendi started school, she was treated differently and felt isolated, but after getting involved in the Special Olympics all that changed. She excelled, and that gave her the strength to explore things she might not have otherwise tried.”

The Games are providing a challenge to New Haven as well. When the city won the bid two years ago to be host for the 1995 World Games (the other contenders were Miami, Boston, and New Orleans), only a few of those involved appreciated the scope of the undertaking. One of those who did was Timothy Shriver ’81, a son of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, and president of the board of Connecticut Special Olympics. Shriver was also a supervisor with the city’s Board of Education, and, according to Lowell Weicker ’53, who was governor of Connecticut at the time, a “natural” at persuading people to get behind the project. Weicker said the key to winning the bid was the state’s willingness to put up a loan guarantee of $20 million toward its $28 million budget, all of which he said has since been raised by the World Games committee. Another major element in the decision was the willingness of Yale to back the project.

Christopher Getman ’64, a member of the board of the World Games, says that his organization took an inventory of all the athletic facilities at universities in and around New Haven and asked each for support before making the bid. Getman says officials at Yale needed some initial persuading before becoming involved. So did some of the other area schools whose facilities will be used for the Games. But Getman says that once they realized the Games wouldn’t be a drain on finances or disrupt regular programs, they proved “very responsive.” Yale “has been completely behind this since then,” he says.

This was not Yale’s first experience with Special Olympics. The University hosted the Connecticut Games from 1988 through 1992, and many of its staff served as volunteers. “I’ve put my soul into it for many years, and I think people on this campus are devoted to Special Olympics,” says Jack Merrill ’67, codirector of competition for the Games and the University’s manager of capital projects for athletics.

Because the effort has involved hundreds of staff, faculty, and administrators who have already logged thousands of hours on the project, the bigger question for people at Yale may be what the University will gain by playing such a large role. Peter Vallone, Yale’s associate vice president for administration and the director of Games operations, says there are many reasons, both tangible and intangible. From the beginning, he says, the Games have been seen as “a chance for us to be involved in something that does good.” But beyond that, there are likely to be substantial economic benefits. Indeed, Governor Weicker has estimated that the state could reap as much as $100 million in related revenues, and that local businesses may see substantial permanent growth as a result of the anticipated influx of visitors. Shriver adds that the University’s involvement is also likely to contribute to its renewed efforts to establish better relations with its host city.

Whatever the reasons for being involved, Yale has embarked on a massive task. “It’s a daunting enterprise because of the demands of the endeavor on every sector,” says University secretary Linda Lorimer, who is Yale’s main liaison with New Haven. “I’m really proud of the extent to which Yale officials and employees have literally thrown themselves at it. This is simply a once-in-a-lifetime event, and everyone has been asked to do their part.”

As a result, Diane Turner, Yale’s director of personnel, has her work cut out for her, enlisting staff, faculty, and students as volunteers (the goal is at least 7,000). “We’re on track, but we have a long way to go,” Turner says. “The success of this event rides on its volunteers.”

Yale’s volunteer contributions will be significant but will represent only a portion of the total. Nora O’Sullivan, deputy director for volunteer services for the World Games, says she is working towards a total force of 45,000 people. Carlos Mercado, an area manager of custodial services for Yale’s residential colleges, will be overseeing the housing of 3,200 of the athletes at Yale and is trying to find bi- and tri-lingual Yale students to work with them. Forrest Temple, Yale’s associate director of finance, facilities, and administration for the department of athletics, is coordinating the athletic competition, deciding which teams will play on what fields, and making sure there will be enough tents for athletes who need a break from the sun.

Merrill, who is acting as Temple’s co-commissioner of competition, is concerning himself with a host of other worries. Primary among them is the opening ceremony, which is expected to fill the Yale Bowl (a feat not achieved since the 100th playing of The Game, in 1983), and is expected to create some monumental parking problems in the surrounding neighborhoods.

A more cheerful concern is the pageantry. Gary Smith, who produced President Clinton’s inaugural and is a veteran of numerous Tony and Emmy awards shows, will be producing the opening. For its part, the city will be sponsoring “Sights on the Sound,” a street festival on Long Wharf that will include musicians, theater groups, and tours of the vintage sailing ships that have been invited for the occasion. (The harbor will be dredged to accommodate them.)

In an attempt to coordinate all the logistics of the operation, planners have set up something very like a war room, right down to the staff, which includes a sprinkling of retired military officers trained in moving whole armies across the globe. They are poring over maps, analyzing traffic patterns, and taxing the capacity of their computers (which were donated by IBM). In December, World Game officials, volunteers, and local, state, and federal agencies participated in a mock dry run with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that included exercises to deal with a major accident on I-91 during rush hour.

Meanwhile, Tom Benincas Jr., Yale’s financial manager for auxiliary services, is focusing on credentials, an integral part of a smoothly run Games and a factor in security, not to mention health. Benincas has already asked participating athletes to send in their passport photos so that he can start making their identification cards, each of which will have a bar code on the back indicating whether an athlete has any major medical problems or allergies and exactly where the athlete is supposed to be throughout the competition. “Let’s say someone happens to get on the wrong bus. We can check the ID and get that athlete where he needs to go,” Benincas said. “Or, God forbid, an athlete has a seizure. This ID will have medical details right on it.”

The Games are not likely to return to New Haven for some time after the closing ceremonies on July 9, but they are likely to leave behind a legacy at Yale that goes beyond athletics. This month, the Law School is holding a symposium on the international human rights of people with developmental disabilities. The findings of that meeting will be presented at another symposium on June 30 at the United Nations in New York. The Divinity School will also be holding a symposium later in the year. Moreover, the governor and the World Games Organizing Committee have already established an Office of Science, Law, and Social Policy, which is chaired by Donald Cohen, director of the Yale Child Study Center, and will gather ministers of health, leaders in education, law, social work, and research, as well as political leaders from around the world, at the U.N. to talk about issues affecting the mentally retarded. “The World Games office and the governor wanted us to use the games as an avenue to bring up pressing issues in the field of mental retardation around the world,” says Elisabeth Dykens, a YCSC assistant clinical professor. “There are still issues of exclusion, of prejudice against people who are mentally retarded. Our goal is to look at the interface between research and social policy.”

Sarah Grabowski ’96 has her own personal reasons for becoming involved in the World Games. Last summer, she stayed in New Haven working with Nora O’Sullivan at the World Games office and this year has been helping Diane Turner recruit student and graduate student volunteers. She’s encouraged classmates to consider holding off on summer jobs for a week in July to work at the Games. She speaks regularly to campus groups; she strong-arms, she cajoles.

Grabowski has a personal stake in Special Olympics: Her uncle, Michael McLaughlin, is a veteran Special Olympian. He bowls, plays basketball, and tennis, and his niece has followed his sporting achievements as eagerly as many follow those of the pros. “Our whole family supports him,” she said. “I know what the Special Olympics have meant in his life.”

Grabowski’s uncle will not be part of this year’s contingent from Illinois. Nevertheless, this semester she’ll continue gathering student volunteers while balancing her studies as a history major. And she’ll be at the Bowl on July 1, “doing whatever I have to do,” she says.  the end


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