Eunice Shriver's Olympian Friends

updated 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It may have had its roots in a modest experiment in Eunice Kennedy Shriver's backyard in 1963, but this year's week-long Seventh International Summer Special Olympics Games hardly betrayed its modest beginnings. Held in a flag-bedecked and overflowing Notre Dame Stadium and kicked off by a name-studded gala televised on ABC, the Games provided an opportunity for 4,700 retarded children and adults to show their hard-earned stuff. Bolstered by a $5.2 million budget, the competition was the year's largest worldwide amateur sports event; one that—with its curious admixture of glitz and emotion—could only have been engineered by a member of America's semi-official First Family.

In a sense, it had all been put into motion by John Kennedy, who in 1962 had asked Eunice to prepare a report on physical education for his panel on the mentally retarded. The Kennedy family was particularly sensitive to the problems of the handicapped, since the President's sister Rosemary, now 68, was born retarded and has been institutionalized since she was 22. Scouring libraries, Eunice found little in the way of research, so she decided to create her own: The following summer she transformed the Shrivers' Maryland farm into a day camp where retarded children could learn to swim, play tennis, even shoot bows and arrows. With her first 100 volunteers flourishing in the field, Eunice developed the radical notion of establishing a national athletic program for the retarded.

The dramatic Sunday evening ceremony at Notre Dame demonstrated the phenomenal success of her project. Barbara Mandrell, Queen Noor of Jordan, John Denver and Don Johnson watched as delegates from all 50 states and 72 foreign countries marched in the scorching heat across the playing field. "It's 100 degrees and everyone has goose bumps," observed NBC anchor Maria Shriver, 31, whose evangelical mother recruited her to help orchestrate the games.

Television, of course, put a whole new spin on the Special Olympics: Enlivened by fireworks, an aerial display by Navy bombers and musical production numbers, the ceremony echoed the extravaganzas that start the traditional Olympics. Eunice had been skeptical, but son Bobby Shriver, 33, who became the executive producer for the ABC special, sold her on the video kickoff. "He was persistent about the show," said Eunice. "I never doubted that he could pull it off, but I didn't see how people would accept seeing a social cause like this combined with entertainment." (Any profit there may be from the show will be donated to the Special Olympics fund.)

The entertainers who came to South Bend were a zealous group: "This was an easy show to book," said Maria. "There was always an instant 'yes' whenever I asked my friends to cooperate."

Both Whitney Houston and John Denver rescheduled concerts in order to sing in the gala. "I just had to be here," said an exhausted Houston, who had arrived at 4 a.m. Waiting backstage for his cue, Denver beamed and fielded a hug from Special Olympian Nancy Pate, 21, a gymnast from Texas. "I'm here because of these children," he said. "We think of them as handicapped, but here they can compete and win, despite the outcome of the event." The 14 sports categories offered a wide range of events—from diving to bowling, from balance beam gymnastics to soccer.

The clean-shaven Johnson—honorary head of the Florida delegation—delivered a Sonny Crockett-style pep talk to the Olympians. "Run faster, jump higher and throw harder than you ever have before," he said. "If you've given it your best shot, that's what being brave is all about."

"It is wonderful for everyone," said Academy Award winner Marlee (Children of a Lesser God) Matlin, who is deaf. "There is a lot of love and sharing." Entranced by the tented Olympic village with its arts and crafts workshops, refreshments and carnival amusements, Matlin raced about excitedly, posing for a picture at the celebrity booth where Miss America, Kellye Cash, held forth, and staying several steps ahead of William Hurt.

Aside from entertainers—Susan Saint James, Marvin Hamlisch, Oprah Winfrey and Emmanuel Lewis, among them—the lineup included a clutch of mainstream athletes and Olympians. Pelé, Lynn Swann, Frank Gifford and Roy Campanella were honorary team captains, and Mary Lou Retton, Bart Conner and Tracee Talavera performed in an opening night gymnastics exhibition with a daring team of Special Olympians. On Sunday afternoon the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing held an SRO basketball clinic highlighted by a one-on-one match with Special Olympian Gary "the Bulldog" Vargas, a 21-year-old athlete from Fresno.

Kennedys were in liberal supply. Arnold Schwarzenegger (a clan member by virtue of his marriage to Maria) was one of the most fervent supporters; since 1979 he has been a weight training coach for the event. Special Olympics board member Edward M. Kennedy Jr., who in 1973 lost his right leg to bone cancer, led the Austrian delegation in the opening ceremony, and his mother, Joan, marched with the Argentinean athletes. "I am psyched," she said. "It's all so overwhelming."

Like Joan, John F. Kennedy Jr. and sister Caroline were first-timers at the annual event: John flew in from Washington, D.C., where he has a summer job with the Justice Department, and Caroline arrived from Los Angeles with Maria and Arnold. Less voluble than her cousins, Caroline still proved a trouper—signing autographs, posing for photos with Olympians and even taking to the podium with her brother. Each complimented the Olympians for exemplifying the kind of courage their father admired.

But 66-year-old Eunice, of course, was the Kennedy of the hour. She had wooed, coaxed and, sometimes, strong-armed an entire generation of coaches, donors and volunteers. Along the way she had convinced skeptics that the retarded, once treated as frail specimens (if not ignored altogether), could blossom on the playing field. A woman not given to outward displays of emotion, Eunice was moved by the opening ceremony as she sat in the reviewing stand with husband Sargent beside her. And with her crusader's zeal, she pounced on the opportunity to deliver her message from the podium: With the television cameras panning their glowing faces, she told her proud legion of Special Olympians something they might never have heard. "You are the stars," she said. "The world is watching you."

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