2014 Special Olympics begins this weekend in New Jersey

 N.J. state Senator Stephen Sweeney and his daughter Lauren at the press conference about N.J.'s support for the Games. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)

N.J. state Senator Stephen Sweeney and his daughter Lauren at the press conference about N.J.'s support for the Games. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)

The athletes are geared up, the medals are lined up, and the torch is on its way.

New Jersey is playing host to the 2014 USA Special Olympics next week, with the opening ceremony taking place on Sun, June 15. Several guests of honor will make an appearance at the Prudential Center in Newark, including actress and model Brooklyn Decker, Glee’s Jane Lynch, and Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams. The theme for opening day: welcome and acceptance.

“It all goes back to the difference that the Special Olympics can make, not only in the lives of families but in communities as well,” said Rachel Gary, communications director of the games.

The USA Special Olympics take place every four years, just like the World Olympics, attracting athletes with intellectual disabilities from all over the country to train and compete in sports like bowling, gymnastics, bocce, and powerlifting. There will be 3,500 athletes competing in this year’s games, drawing 70,000 or so spectators over the course of the week. Competitions are free and open to the public, and a number of ticketed events are scheduled in various locations throughout the state, including Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, and Mercer County Park. 

Gary says this year’s Olympics include a number of new programs to engage not only the athletes but also their families.

For the first time, children between two and seven years old will be invited to participate in the Young Athletes Festival (June 16 – 19). The festival will allow children to participate in fun motor skills-based activities designed to help parents evaluate their skills.

“When a child is born with an intellectual disability they’re spending a lot of time at doctors and hearing all the things they may never be able to do,” says Gary. “What we try to do is turn that around and provide an atmosphere where parents can see all the things their children are capable of.”

Many events are designed to get the community involved as well. A nighttime sports showcase will go down several nights of the week, inviting members of the public to watch as athletes with and without disabilities team up to compete in various sports. 

One of the unofficial themes of this year’s games, according to Gary, is a journey through the human body to encourage a healthy athlete experience. Doctors will provide free health screenings to every athlete – and for many, this is their only opportunity for a physical this year.

“We use this as an opportunity to not only provide physicals to all of the athletes, but also a way for top medical professionals to have a chance to treat this part of the population and bring that knowledge back to their own practices,” explains Gary. She hopes this experience will foster a better understanding of intellectual disabilities within the medical community, and take the fear out of going to doctor’s visits.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a New Jersey event without a boardwalk. The Special Olympics committee is creating an athletes-only, Jersey shore-themed Olympics town on the College of New Jersey campus, with a temporary boardwalk and Carnival rides.

Closing ceremonies will take place on June 20th, going out on the theme of friendship and inclusion to emphasize the importance of community acceptance.

Tune into a live stream of the opening ceremonies this Sunday, 4-7pm. A highlights show will air on Fox Sports 1 on June 30th. Competitions are free and open to the public; ticketed events are also free but attendees must reserve their spot in advance. For more information about ticketing and event locations, visit the 2014 USA Special Olympics website.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.