USC plays more than just host at Special Olympics

The closing ceremony of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games on Aug. 2 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum concluded the world’s largest humanitarian and sports event of the year. Yet the spirit of inclusivity and determination that characterized the eight-day competition can be seen in programs that live on at USC, which acted as the central hub for the Games.

The Games commenced on July 25 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with first lady Michelle Obama, Jimmy Kimmel, Justin Bieber, Michael Phelps and dozens of other celebrities and heads of state on hand to celebrate. The Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans, previously hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympics Games.

Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the 1960s, the Special Olympics operates on regional, national and global levels in hosting competitions for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The first International Special Olympics Games was held in 1968 at Chicago’s Soldier Field with only 100 fans in the stands cheering athletes on.

In contrast, this year’s opening ceremony was sold out with 62,338 people on hand to witness the historic event.

The 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from all around the world were housed for the week in two separate athlete villages: one at USC and the other at UCLA.  The Trojans also hosted basketball events at the Galen Center, aquatics competitions at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center and track and field events at Cromwell Field and Loker Stadium.

The World Games’ Nerve Center, the digital heartbeat of the Games, was also based at USC, in the Forum at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. The Games Operating Committee’s Digital Strategy and Social Media team, as well as volunteers from Google and YouTube who assisted in the viral management of L.A. 2015 coverage, were all stationed here.

“Google is a corporate sponsor, so the Google volunteers organized all of the incoming media and posting images and videos onto the Games’ social networks so people could stay connected,” said Scott Newman, a Google software engineer. Newman is one of 50 volunteers who came to Los Angeles from Google offices around the world.

Some Google employees also participated in “Fans in the Stands,” an organized program to manage spectatorship of the World Games competitions. Other corporations who came out in large numbers to participate in “Fans in the Stands” were LA 2015 partners Deloitte and Kaiser Permanente, as well as Disney.

With tens of thousands of athletes, staff, volunteers and spectators coming to USC’s campus each day for the competitions, the event came to encompass the Trojan spirit.

“I’ve seen USC being pretty busy, but it has really been a wonderful experience to see all the teams bring a higher energy to campus,” said Vishnuprasad Chandrasekaran, a graduate student starting his final year at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

Students and faculty from the Ostrow School of Dentistry also volunteered with “Special Smiles,” the dentistry division of the Healthy Athletes program. Started in 1997, Healthy Athletes provides free medical check-ups and gear, such as prescription eyeglasses or properly fitting shoes, for any and all Special Olympics athletes.

Physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and the USC Davis School of Gerontology also contributed to the Healthy Athletes initiative. Though people with intellectual disabilities suffer from higher rates of morbidity and mortality as well as a lower quality of life than those without, USC’s health care volunteers were able to teach the athletes about preventative health and lifestyle habits, such as the use of sunblock and healthy eating.

“The experience has been amazing,” said Dr. Santosh Sundaresan, section chair of Community Health Programs at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and a dentist participating in Special Smiles. Special Smiles has been able to provide free mouthguards, crowns, root canals and cleanings for Special Olympics athletes, and this opportunity has benefitted the university as much as it has helped out the athletes.

“USC is known for its community outreach programs. Dental, medical, you name it, and we’re there. That’s our forte. But these games especially have been magnificent. It’s an eye opener in many ways,” said Sundaresan.

Trojans who happened to be on campus, either during their vacation or for the summer session, could not ignore the pervasive spirit of the Special Olympics. Crowds of campus tours walked past the World Games Festival in USC’s Alumni Park and the Healthy Athletes tents in McCarthy Quad, while USC students engaged in their studies next to volunteers from all over Southern California.

But perhaps most importantly, USC played host to the greatest intersection of disability, ability and diplomacy on the planet.

At the World Games, participants and spectators did away with the obstacles faced by people with intellectual disabilities, instead placing the spotlight on the tremendous accomplishments achieved by these athletes and international pioneers.

“These athletes who are participating in the World Games are phenomenal people,” Sundaresan said. “Their willpower [and] their whole attitude [are] just mind-blowing.”