About 1,800 participants from across Georgia will compete in an array of sports at venues throughout Cobb County this weekend, including The Cooler, Brunswick Zone, Marietta Middle School and Cobb Civic Center. A full schedule of events can be found at www.Special OlympicsGA.org.
The games are free and open to the public. They are sponsored by Watkinsville-based Stadion Money Management.
During the opening ceremony, each athlete and coach will wear a red and white scarf knitted by volunteers from all over the country. The grand marshals will be four Special Olympics World Games athletes who'll compete in Greece in July. The highlight of the night is the lighting of the cauldron by a law enforcement officer and an athlete, signifying the "flame of hope" for athletes and the community.
Special Olympics Georgia provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Its goal is to help integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities into the larger society, where they'll be accepted, respected and have an opportunity to become productive citizens.
Athletes, ranging from age 8 up to seniors, participate in basketball, ice skating, bowling, floor hockey, powerlifting, artistic gymnastics and roller skating.
"There are still obstacles in society for people with intellectual disabilities," said Wendy Bigham, Special Olympics Georgia spokeswoman. "(Special Olympics) is an opportunity for athletes to develop relationships with others who also have intellectual disabilities. When athletes are competing and have to take directions from coaches, they not only learn particular sports skills, but they're also learning life skills. Many of our athletes go on to live independent lives."
Cindy Bickman is the coach of Cobb's women's gymnastics team. She said her 45 athletes have been training since last summer. The games give them a chance to see the fruition of their hard work, she said.
"Their goal is to go and do well in all of their performances," said Bickman, owner of Chattooga School of Gymnastics & Dance in Marietta. "Because everyone is a winner - no matter what their ability level, they always compete against athletes of similar ability - it really boots their self-esteem."
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which is Special Olympics Georgia's largest grassroots fundraiser. In 2010, the torch run, which begins in May, raised $650,000, Bigham said.
In 1970, Special Olympics Georgia was born when 500 athletes gathered at a metro Atlanta college to participate in a track and field event. The organization has since helped thousands of children and adults. Special Olympics Inc., the national organization, was founded in 1968 by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.