Special Olympics USA Games will be held here beginning July 1, drawing an estimated 4,000 athletes and 70,000 spectators. That could translate into millions of dollars, but the head of the Seattle Sports Commission says the amount of inspiration will be priceless.
With seven weeks remaining, Beth Knox is entering the final stages of preparation before Seattle’s first Special Olympics USA Games.
Beginning July 1, the six-day Games will draw an estimated 4,000 athletes, 10,000 travelers, 15,000 volunteers and 70,000 spectators at eight venues spread across a 40-mile radius from Kenmore to Federal Way and from Redmond to Seattle.
Athletes with intellectual disabilities representing every state in the country will participate in 14 events during the six-day competition that will be the biggest athletic gathering here in nearly three decades.
For full details on the Special Olympics USA Games coming to Seattle, go to www.specialolympicsusagames.org
“It’s not only the largest, but a better benchmark is that it’s the most significant sporting event to hit Seattle since the 1990 Goodwill Games,” said Knox, the president and CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. “We will have an incredible number of people here that will be part of our community for a week.
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“But what they are bringing with them — the spirit of the Special Olympics and that spirit of inclusion — that’s the part that is so significant.”
Husky Stadium will host the opening ceremony, and competitions will take place at the University of Washington, Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University.
Venues outside the city include Willows Run Golf Complex in Redmond, Angle Lake in SeaTac, Kenmore Lanes bowling alley in Kenmore, and Celebration Park and the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
The Games are expected to generate from $50 million to $75 million for businesses in the Seattle area, according to the Seattle Sports Commission. Those figures are much smaller than the reported $140 million generated by the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay outside Tacoma, but the statistics tell only half the story.
“We talk a lot about economic impact and how many visitors are coming to town, but the greater impact is the inspirational impact that an event like the Special Olympics will have on our city,” said Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission. “The U.S. Open was incredible, but that was mostly isolated in Tacoma.
“I’m all about dollars and cents and breaking down the numbers, but some things you just can’t quantifiably measure, and this is one of them.”
Seattle is vying to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup and a Major League Baseball All-Star Game. It’s unrealistic to suggest that how the city handles the Special Olympics will impact those bids, but Morton believes a strong showing could help.
“This is a chance for us to really show who we are as a community,” he said. “It’s not held in one venue or one infrastructure. This requires people to come together for fundraising, logistics, operation and volunteers. It’s bringing in elements from all over the region.”
The Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, is far more than races and games.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, created the first international Special Olympics in 1968. Inspired by her sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, Shriver spent years promoting research and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
Shriver believed everybody should have a chance to feel special, regardless of whether they win a medal.
That belief is embodied in the Special Olympics Athlete Oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
While the Special Olympics celebrates its 50th anniversary, these are just the fourth USA Games, after 2006 (Ames, Iowa), 2010 (Lincoln, Neb.) and 2014 (New Jersey).
Joseph Rivers, a 34-year-old Kent resident, spent the past 15 years involved in the Special Olympics as a participant, coach, referee and now father of 15- and 11-year-old daughters who are competing in the Games this year.
“A lot of the athletes that come and participate are there to win, but then again following the model of ‘let me be brave in the attempt,’ they’re happy to play,” said Rivers, who appeared in his first Games when he was 15 in 1999. “They’re happy for the support they receive.
“Depending on what you’re doing and what your goals are, it does get scary for some athletes. But then again, they get over it and they do it. And whether they win or not, they feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Special Olympics sports include: athletics, basketball, bocce, bowling, flag football, golf, gymnastics, powerlifting, soccer, softball, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming, tennis and volleyball.
With the exception of the opening ceremony, the events are free to the public.
“The volume of things in my brain right now is pretty intense,” said Knox, who spent 10 years (starting in 2005) as the CEO of Seafair, the city’s annual summer festival. “Primarily, what I’m thinking about is what is the impression and the image we’re giving throughout the city?
“We’re in the print-it, make-it-happen and put-it-up phase. You’ll start to see signage going up downtown, at Sea-Tac (airport) and at our venues and with our sponsors. We’re about to tip into the marketing phase. And at this point, it’s really about implementation.”
Part of that implementation has been figuring out how to get the athletes and their families around the traffic-congested Seattle area.
King County Metro will supply 4,000 prepaid ORCA cards that will allow the athletes free use of public transportation.
“Seattle is a great place to host these Games,” said Metro general manager Rob Gannon. “We have world-class facilities and are surrounded by natural beauty, but even more important Seattle is a place truly committed to equity and the idea that everyone – every single one – should have equal access to opportunity.”
Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle also have been part of those efforts.
Knox expects to soon announce the headline performers who will join musician Allen Stone and dance troupe Massive Monkees at the opening ceremony.
Tickets will be sold in advance, and Knox anticipates a full house.
“That’s the goal, but more than that, I hope that the people in this region can have a connection with the Games,” Knox said. “Either they talk to an athlete at a restaurant downtown or they volunteer or they attend. It’s about making those connections.
“It’s not about having these people here and then they leave. It’s about having an impact on our region. We have the opportunity to make that cultural shift that inclusion is the benchmark – that’s where we start. Inclusion for all.
“If that’s our baseline, then we’re setting an example that the rest of the country and potentially the world can follow.”