LOS ANGELES — The 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games will be the largest sporting event to hit Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympics — a logistical enterprise that seems impossible when you walk into the organizing committee’s office downtown.
About a dozen employees work out of the donated space, a cluster of empty cubicles strewn with half-opened boxes of business cards and printers that haven’t been plugged in yet.
But in two years, a full-time staff of 160 and an estimated 30,000 volunteers will put on competitions throughout Los Angeles for more than 7,000 athletes in an event that will bring an estimated $415 million to the regional economy.
Griffith Park will host golf. A hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center will be converted into five stadiums for team handball, roller skating and bocce ball. Student dorms at USC and UCLA will become athletes’ villages. And Lucky Strike at L.A. Live, sans alcohol sales and black lights, will host bowling.
For now, said Patrick McClenahan, president of the games, the committee’s main job is raising funds and spreading the word.
He’s been taking his pitch to Sacramento, Calif. and Washington, D.C. How the Special Olympics comes off could help Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, McClenahan said. China hosted the Special Olympics in 2007 before the 2008 Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and South Korea hosted this year’s Special Olympics in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“It’s a great calling card,” McClenahan said. “Three months after the (Special Olympics) happens, the United States will pick the host city and then the International Olympic Committee will pick the winner.”
The Special Olympics began in 1962 as a day camp in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard. It has since grown to 170 countries. Previous Special Olympics in other countries received government support — the Chinese government paid 85 percent of the cost — but McClenahan and his committee must raise the $91 million needed to put on the games themselves.
“If this was any of the three previous Olympics, I would be doing the job of the minister of sport,” McClenahan said.
Los Angeles’ Special Olympics has the support of powerful public and private interests, including Anschutz Entertainment Group, Disney, Lionsgate Co-Chairman Rob Friedman and billionaire David Geffen. Most recently, President Obama announced that he and First Lady Michelle Obama would serve as chairs of the games in a specially recorded YouTube video — perhaps a belated apology for his 2009 comment on the “The Tonight Show” comparing his poor bowling to the Special Olympics.
Los Angeles lured the games by calling itself a “world stage” that Special Olympics athletes could share with celebrities — a powerful message about inclusion, McClenahan said.
The selection committee’s trip to L.A. included stops at the official residences of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and culminated in a midcourt, Jumbotron-broadcast ceremony at a Lakers home game, courtesy of the team’s vice president, Jeanie Buss.
McClenahan said some of the $91 million will be paid through donated services. A pro bono team of logistics specialists from Deloitte is helping formulate plans for transportation, volunteer coordination and athlete experiences. Kaiser Permanente will donate medical care for athletes.
Paul Hoffman, a 55-year-old Special Olympics athlete, is making his own contribution: explaining how competitive sports help people with disabilities.
In the conference room of the downtown office, Hoffman leans back in his chair and folds his hands over his waist, covering his left hand with his right. The trim, lanky basketball player — who’s as tall as Michael Jordan — was born without the motor skills to work the fingers of his left hand.
He catches, throws and shoots single-handed, and has “more medals than I can count,” Hoffman said.
Special Olympics athletes around the world do not experience the pressure and heartbreak of national trials. But they undergo competitions that are closely observed by Special Olympics chapters, and the best-performing athletes in each division win a spot at the World Summer Games — which has just 7,000 spots.
The games were designed to bring out the competitive spirit of as many athletes with disabilities as possible, and Hoffman said everyone wants to win. The games’ official slogan is: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Hoffman has his own version: “If I cannot win, let me at least come in second.”
© 2013 the Los Angeles Times
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