“Saints Help Special Olympics’ Flame Burn Brightly,” Ensign, May 1985, 107–8
When athletes performing in the Winter Games of the International Special Olympics March 24 to 29 took their marks or crossed the finish line, chances are they were sent off or met by a Latter-day Saint.
The games were held in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah, and approximately three thousand Church members were involved in planning and support roles—with emphasis on support.
Special Olympics is an international organization created by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation. Its competitions allow handicapped athletes to feel the accomplishment of competing in a variety of sports. More than eight hundred athletes, from all fifty of the United States, the District of Columbia, and fourteen other countries (including Canada and the United Kingdom), participated in the four events of the Winter Games. The events were alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, and speed skating.
Jim Murphy, executive director of the International Special Olympics Winter Games, said the Church was an important contributor to the success of the enterprise. Other organizations, including universities and civic clubs, furnished both material and people, and there were also many individuals who volunteered to help with the games. Several hundred volunteers came from Hill Air Force Base, north of Salt Lake City.
After the games, Special Olympics President R. Sargent Shriver told volunteers they had witnessed the best International Special Olympics winter event yet staged, Brother Murphy said.
Craig Fisher, assistant director of Utah Special Olympics, handled media relations for the International Winter Games this year. He noted that the Church’s role was not a highly visible one. Given the number of commercial organizations that want to support the games in return for publicity, he commented, “It’s nice to have someone make that commitment without expecting visible pats on the back.”
In addition to the large number of Latter-day Saint volunteers, the Church hosted a closing-night banquet for nearly eight hundred members of the Special Olympians’ families.
Stakes in Park City and Kamas, Utah, provided housing and related services for many of the athletes’ families. The Church helped supply volunteers from eighty Salt Lake-area stakes.
Brigham Young University provided much of the entertainment for opening and closing ceremonies and coordinated translation services for the non-English-speaking delegations. The Tabernacle Choir sang at the closing ceremonies and their performance was one of many highlights for the visitors to the Olympics.
Among the volunteers, the greatest rewards probably came to those who served on an individual basis—as translators, as guides, as “huggers” for the athletes after they had competed, as live-in hosts and hostesses. There were about 125 live-in hosts “who volunteered a full week of their time,” Brother Fisher noted. Most, like recent graduate Michelle Lewis, were associated with BYU.
Sister Lewis, a member of the Bountiful Fifty-fifth Ward, Bountiful Utah East Stake, was a live-in hostess for fifteen athletes, ranging in age from thirteen to thirty-two, of the New Jersey delegation. She helped get them up in the morning and off to their events, went to cheer for them, and sometimes was “just someone they could talk with.”
“You always hear that the ‘special athletes’ are so innocent, and it’s true,” she comments. They are also very loving. “They get up in the morning, and they give you a hug. They leave for their events, and they give you a hug.” And so it went throughout the day. They were also very selfless. They cheered enthusiastically for competitors. One young skier took it upon himself to clean everyone’s skis after they returned to their lodgings each day.
The spirit of volunteerism in connection with the games was infectious. There was a cheering section at the Salt Palace as ice skaters competed on the final day, Brother Fisher recalled. “The athletes had big grins on their faces because there was someone out there caring.” The cheering section turned out to be a youth group from a Bountiful, Utah, stake.
There were many tearful farewells for the live-in hosts and host families when the special athletes departed for home, possibly because the bonds of caring had grown strong during the week of the games. Most of the volunteers said they received far more than they were able to give the athletes.
At the closing night dinner, Mr. Shriver expressed generous thanks to the Church and all its individual volunteers for their help. “Our concern is for the welfare of people,” responded Elder David B. Haight of the Council of the Twelve. There are great opportunities, great blessings that come to individuals, he said, “when we have an opportunity to … do something for someone else.”