In the past 20 years there probably has been more breaking away from human limitations than in all earlier recorded history. And nowhere have victories over physical and mental handicaps been more far-reaching than in that vast arena of human endeavor called sports.
"The word is getting out," says Jack Benedict, president of the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association, headquartered in Denver. "Skiing , track and field, swimming, weight lifting, skating, archery, ping pong, scuba diving, golf, water skiing, white water rafting, kayaking -- just about anything anybody does, handicap peopple are doing. Sometimes very well, sometimes just doing it."
The challengfe of participating, competing, and giving your all "goes a long way toward eliminating the wallflower image," observe Benedict -- "as much for the disabled as for the able-bodied."
Some of the earliest efforts at organizing the disabled were by "wheelchair athletes," who by the late 1950s and early '60s were playing basketball and racing each other enough to have formed their own association.
Now, in this International Year of Disabled Persons at least seven major sports groups in the United States alone are working to overcome limits associated with physical and mental handicaps. Benedict estimates that at least 200,000 people are actively involved in sports competition and recreation for the physically handicapped.
among the mentally disadvantaged, 2 million competitors (and more than 300, 000 volunteers) in the US and some 40 other countries have participated in 14 years of Special Olympics games. The latest was the second quadrennial International Winter Special Olympics, which recently took place here and in the nearby communities of Stowe and Essex Junction. Over 600 athletes, from 10 to 57 years old, and 2,000 volunteers from 47 states, the District of Columbia, Taiwan, Belgium, Puerto Rico and Canada participated.
According to Benedict, two phenomena have forced people to break out of old modes of thinking about physical limitations. One was the Vietnam war. Wounded veterans began to perceive they need notlive inactive, spiriteless lives because one, two, or even more limbs or faculties were missing.
The other major factor has been telivision, he says. Expanded media coverage of competition for the handicapped has resulted in "a tremendous increase in awareness" of available activities and potential achievements.
Nowhere has the challenge to fulfill one's potential been addressed more movingly, perhaps, than by the mentally disadvantaged, together with caring parents and friends. Since 1968 they have participated in local, state, regional, and international Special Olympics in a total of 15 different sports.
But the challenge has not been just to the athletes, according to Special Olympics founder and president Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The great army of volunteers and parents from all walks of life that assembles to put on a Special Olympics challenges "the spirit of the times that says only intellectual achievement is the measure of human life," she told the crowd at the opening ceremonies here. "(Your) commitment is to the values that count and will endure -- courage, joy, sharing, and skill."
The the volunteers, some of whom traveled great distances at their own expense, and the athletes took part in five days of camaraderie, training, and competition. All of it micht best be reflected in the Special Olympics oath delivered by 15-year-old Elroy Mayberry of St. Johnsbury, Vt.: "LEt me win; but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
The spectacle of one of these special games is not unlike that at "the real Olympics," complete with the opening parade of athletes, each delegation smartly attired and equipped throug big contributions of dozens of corporate sponsors. There is the lighting of the Special Olympics flame, speeches, music, entertainment, and everywhere large smiles and shouts of encouragement.
Big name celebrities travel long distances to play humble roles as coaches, cheerers-on, and huggers (the supporters you always see hugging people after they cross a finish line or get a medal).At the winter games here, they included such sports heroes and Olympic medal winners as speed skaters Eric and Beth Heiden, and Sheila Young, skier Billy Kidd, former decathalon champion Rafer Johnson, figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Karen Magnussen Cella, New England Patriots tight-end Russ Francis and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, TV sportscaster Frank Gifford, plus Hollywood personalities Susan ST. James, Cathy Lee Crosby, "Darth Vader" (Kermit Taylor), Dick Sargent, and "Superman" Christopher Reeve.
The power of the Kennedy name (the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation sponsors the Special Olympics, and the family took part in games here) may help to first solicit sports and entertainment stars. But it obviously has nothing to do with why many return to wait patiently to present a medal or otherwise cheer on the athletes.
For this is the Special Olympians' week to shine, not as winners or runners-up but as totally committed participants. Whether they have trained long as skiers or skaters -- and some are quite accomplished -- or whether, as for some, this is their introduction to the sports.
"We can learn much from these Special Olympians," said former world figure skating champion Karen Magnussen cella. "The joy of participation, not just winning, is the most important thing to come out of these Olympics."
Sheila Young and Dorothy Hamill observed that setting goals can involve different levels of skill for different people. But there is a common joy in reaching fully for them --and being cheered in the attempt.
"To me, it shows that sports is a key to bringing people together," said Miss Young, no matter how far apart they may seem to be. "I know how these kids feel when their goal is to get once around the rink or win their heat and they give their all and do it. It makes them feel good about themselves."
Among all my memories of thought-provoking events like the National Handicapped Skiing Championships or the Special Olympics, one stands above the rest. It happened during the one-lap speed skating races here.
At the starting whistle, one little girl fell on her face. She struggled to her feet, took a few steps and went down again as her fellow racers rounder the far turn. This went on several times until, unable to stand it any longer, I turned away to pursue an interview with one of the celebrities.
As I emerged above the crowd, I looked back at the ice one more time.There coming out of the final turn was the little girl, one hand now in that of her volunteer hugger. Suddenly, as she approached the finish line, she looked up at the crowd , and her free hand shot into the air in a joyous victory salute.
The cheer that greeted her did not take second candle to any of those for athletes who had crossed finish line first.