Uplifting ceremony ended the athletes' oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Boy, did we ever need this.
In a video shown at Husky Stadium during Sunday’s riveting and emotional Opening Ceremonies for the Special Olympics USA Games, an athlete said poignantly, “I don’t want your pity. I need your respect.”
It was impossible to watch the two-hour-plus ceremony and not bestow unwavering respect to the 4,000 athletes from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who will be participating in 14 sports over the next six days.
It is respect fully earned, and it is mixed with awe and leavened by the pure, unadulterated joy that radiated from the athletes and reverberated through the stadium. The Huskies football team might win the national championship, and we won’t see anything more inspiring on this field.
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These are cynical times, and this was the perfect antidote to cynicism. The parade of participants, which was the centerpiece of the ceremony, brought a lump to your throat and a smile to your lips. Often simultaneously.
Athletes paraded in, some arm in arm, some in wheel chairs, some with support dogs in tow, some accompanied by law-enforcement officers. All exuded a transcendent spirit of bliss that is the essence of sport, and the crux of the Special Olympics. As Gov. Jay Inslee said in his welcoming address, “I’m here to declare the happiest place in the USA is here today at the USA Games.”
The crowd, which filled the lower bowl at Husky Stadium, added to the festive mood, with beach balls bounding around the bleachers and an occasional “wave” just for old time sake. In true Northwest fashion, the ceremony began in drizzle and gloom, and ended under blue skies with the sun blazing.
The show itself, televised live on ABC, was eclectic and inclusive, the latter a word that was repeated more than any other and stands at the very core of the Special Olympics movement.
“The Special Olympics has had a message of inclusion for 50 years,’’ said Jayme Powers, Executive Producer and Chief Operating Officer for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. “I feel like the rest of the world is starting to catch up with the Special Olympics.”
One couldn’t listen to the address of Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and not hear pointed references to today’s rancorous political climate.
Shriver implored the athletes to “show the world what it looks like to lead from the heart. Because the world is looking. The world is looking for leaders who value compassion, who value dignity and respect, who value unity, and you, my fellow athletes and friends of Special Olympics, you are the ones the world is looking for.
“You are the leaders the world needs at this critical moment. So show America what it means to shower respect on your fellow human beings. Show the world what it means to choose to include. Show others, where they see tension and fear, show them togetherness.
“And when others see division, I’m asking you, show them love. Because we are living in a country that needs you right now, and we’re here to take a stand for a different kind of America.”
The universal appeal of these athletes was reflected in the breadth and range of the Opening Ceremonies. Taye Diggs was the emcee. Speakers ranged from Hall of Fame athletes Walter Jones and Gary Payton to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and WWE stars Stephanie McMahon, Mark Henry and Charlotte Flair. Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin was a grand marshal. Ann Wilson of Heart sang the national anthem. Other performers included Charlie Puth, DJ Marshmello, Allen Stone, Kyla Jade of The Voice, Maddie Poppe of American Idol, the Coast Salish Sea Peoples and a 2,000-person choir that did a touching rendition of “River Flowin’ In My Soul.”
“It’s a little tricky — the show is for the athletes, but also for television,’’ Powers said. “Managing that balance is important. But any time we found ourselves in that moment of, “What’s it going to be?”, we came down on the side of the athletes, the people live in front of you. It’s for them. It’s why we’re doing all of it.
“The audience is everybody,’’ she added. “Everyone is touched by this movement. Everyone has a relative or knows a friend. So it’s pretty broad strokes when it comes to what should the entertainment be.”
Through it all, the athletes swayed, danced and sang. At one point during the choir’s song, giant ribbons emblazoned with phrases such as “confidence,” “dignity,” “empowerment,” “pride,” and “fun” were passed down through the stands and toward the athletes, who filled the field.
It all culminated with the raising of the Special Olympics flag, the lighting of the “Flame of Hope,” and the recitation of the athletes’ oath:
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Words we could all live by. Words we need to embrace now, more than ever. No pity, just respect.