I COULD SEE VICTORY IN THEIR EYES," SAYS MARTIAL ARTS superhero Jean-Claude Van Damme. And it was true. Last week at the Special Olympics World Games, everyone was golden. Marking the largest turnout ever of athletes with mental retardation, more than 7,000 from around the world gathered in New Haven, Conn., to compete with each other—and challenge public perceptions about what mental disability really means. Look at what these Special Olympians can do: Tommy Moon, 15, was left quadriplegic and in a semi-vegetative state after birth; today he bowls from a wheelchair, scoring up to 198. Kamala Gesteland, blind in one eye, trains four times a week and won a bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.

If sheer courage weren't enough, the opening ceremonies of the Games, held July 1, got a boost from a squad or two of celebrities, starting with the Kennedy clan. The International Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Maria Shriver's mother, Eunice, 73, in part as a tribute to her sister Rosemary Kennedy, 76, who is retarded. As usual, the Kennedys attracted a host of stars and athletes, including Van Damme (who is a bit of both), models Elle Macpherson and Kathy Ireland, Beverly Hills, 90210's Gabrielle Carteris, rappers Run-DMC, former Olympians Dan Jansen and Nadia Comaneci and co-emcees Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford. Some had served as honorary "coaches" for the Olympians. "People say terrible things [about retarded people]," says Who's the Boss? star Tony Danza, who has spent time with a New York City girls' softball team. "The Special Olympics makes them feel normal."

Carteris—who starts her talk show, Gabrielle, in September—has been a teacher's aide to deaf and retarded children, which changed her perspective on life. "Diversity doesn't just come in religion or race," she says, "but also in the way we think and do things." L.A. Law's Jill Eikenberry, who attended with husband and costar Michael Tucker, surveyed the milling athletes and their beaming parents. "The joy is infectious," she says. "All you have to do is look at their faces, and you feel what's going on in their hearts."