LATE one afternoon, with the ninth Special Olympics World Games in full swing on Yale University's sprawling sports complex, a small but vocal cheering section from Kentucky is approached for a few comments after a Kentucky-vs.-Zimbabwe soccer game.
These parents have seen their children join the 7,200 athletes medically diagnosed as mentally retarded from 140 countries who have gathered here for perhaps the world's foremost feel-good sports festival. At these Olympics, every athlete is encouraged, no national anthems are played, no drug tests are administered, everyone goes home with a ribbon or medal, and hugs and high-fives are the dominant language.
What do their children gain from Special Olympics, these Kentucky rooters are asked. ''Most of them have no social life outside an activity like this,'' one mother replies. ''This is where they develop friendships.''
Another parent is thrilled to report that two of the players on the coed squad attended their high school prom together.
''Seeing them happy, seeing their younger brother jealous'' is the payoff for another beaming mother, who says this is a chance for these youngsters to shine.
The Kentucky players were given a police escort to the airport, with a few sirens to clear fans at the start of their journey.
Earl Sullivan, a factory materials coordinator and volunteer softball coach with players on the soccer team, wouldn't have missed any of this, he says, even though he has no children participating. His involvement in Special Olympics is the most rewarding thing he's ever done: ''They know you're there to help them,'' he says of the young athletes in his charge.
The Special Olympics were the inspiration of Eunice Kennedy Shriver some 30 years ago and have grown from a two-sport competition in 1968 to 19 sports today, including powerlifting, gymnastics, and charter entries swimming and track and field.
Among firsts this year are sailing and golf, plus a marathon on Sunday. ''We don't keep world records,'' says Thomas Songster, director of sports and recreation at Special Olympics International. He adds, however, that some of the athletes own impressive performances, from 11.2 seconds in the 100 meters to roughly 4 minutes in the 1,500.
The Special Olympics World Games are the beneficiary this year of a wonderful reception in Connecticut. Concerts, tall ships, and a major waterfront festival in New Haven have added to the lively atmosphere.
A huge volunteer force is on board, and celebrities from President Clinton to Olympic champion Florence Griffith-Joyner, to football-baseball player Bo Jackson and pro wrestling stars have worked the crowd. Tim Shriver, president of the World Games, helped to raise more than $28 million in corporate sponsorship.
One initiative that has enthused the Special Olympics community is Unified Sports, in which nondisabled athletes of comparable ability train and compete with Special Olympians in 11 sports.
''The exciting part is watching [the athletes] take their Unified Sports experiences into other areas of their lives, such as school, work, and their communities,'' Dr. Songster says. ''Sports is simply the vehicle.''