Thursday, May 17, 2018

CMU and Michigan Special Olympics

By Frank Boles

In 1973 CMU first hosted the Michigan Special Olympics Summer State Games. The games were begun in Michigan in 1968. The first year the game came to CMU, 1,500 athletes participated in the event. Since 1973, CMU has annually hosted the Summer State Games. This year, the games will be held May 31 through June 2. An estimated 2,600 athletes will come to campus and begin the games on the 31st with a parade and opening ceremony beginning at 6:15 p.m. in Kelly Shorts Stadium.

The program’s primary goal is to support the athletes. As one simply put it, “We get to have a good experience. I enjoy that the most.” The program benefits not only the participants, but also the participants’ families. “I’ve always focused not on what Preston can’t do,” said the mother of one athlete, “but what he can do. I can’t imagine life for him or for our entire family with the Special Olympics.”

Creating that good experience for the athletes and their families involves many, many volunteers, who also find working at the events a life-changing experience. Deon Butler, who played football for CMU from 2011 to 2014 attended events in his football uniform. “It really turned out to be the best thing in my life.” Athletes waited in line to meet him. “They come up to me and make me feel special,” Butler said. “Anybody who can come put a smile on my face, if I can put one on their face, it’s the best thing in the world.”

In 1975 CMU hosted the International Special Olympics. The first International Special Olympics games had been hosted by the city of Chicago, in 1968. 5,000 people attended the 1975 games in Mt. Pleasant, including 3,200 athletes from around the world.

The opening ceremonies featured the release of 4,000 balloons, and 1,000 “doves of peace,” which were actually homing pigeons which found their way home after their release.

In addition to the games themselves, the athletes and their families were welcomed to a number of entertainment events. An outdoor carnival featuring more than 200 booths was held. Sally Struthers, who was then starring on the most watched television sitcom in America, All in the Family, hosted a musical concert. Publicity for the event listed many other “celebrities”:

“Planning to be at CMU in August are entertainer and song writer Mac Davis, TV personality Dick Sargeant, 1960 decathlon Gold Medal winner Rafer Johnson, athletes Lacey O’Neil and Gary Erwin, ex-pro football great Frank Gifford, TV stars Mark Slade and Theresa (“That’s My Momma") Merrit, former baseball great Carl Erskine, basketball’s Wayne Embry, ex-professional football star Roosevelt Grier, Olympic swimmer Donna DeVarona, clown Ronald MacDonald and Gov. William G. Milliken.”

Why the governor of the state was listed after Ronald McDonald (and who came up with that spelling – perhaps someone who had deprived their children of the quintessential American experience of a happy meal served in play place under the Golden Arches?) are questions best answered by the anonymous writer of the PR release.

Celebrities, however, were merely icing on the cake. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the International Games was a very special thank you every participant received – a hug. Mostly CMU students, the “huggers” volunteered to give every participant who finished an event a big hug, and a few words of encouragement.

Michigan Special Olympics is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics in our state this year. We welcome to the organization’s golden anniversary celebration this year’s athletes, their families and friends, and the many volunteers who make the event possible.