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A special occasion

The largest amateur athletic organization in the world is bringing its annual summer games to USF.

This Friday and Saturday, USF hosts the 31st annual summer Special Olympics. The games will be held at USF for the second consecutive year and will return for the next two or three years, vice president of public relations for the Special Olympics Amie Schank-Dugan said.

“The first summer games ever were in Tampa at USF, and we were instrumental in having the track built at the university. We really enjoy bringing the event to Tampa and are always happy to come back,” Schank-Dugan said.

More than 2,100 athletes from around the state will compete in a variety of sports at different levels of difficulty and age groups. Events include track and field, tennis, soccer, cycling, volleyball and bocce ball. There is a minimum age requirement of 8 and no maximum age for participation, Schank–Dugan said.

She said most of the participants have mental retardation and are registered to get involved with Special Olympics through school or group homes. The rest of the participants come from the 300 law enforcement agencies involved with Special Olympics.

“The summer games started with the Florida Law Enforcement Torch Run, which is still going on,” Schank-Dugan said. “This is the 20th anniversary of the run, which consists of five simultaneous runs throughout the state, ending in Tampa for the opening ceremony at the summer games.”

Small groups of runners began the torch run in Key West, Pensacola, Naples, Okeechobee and Hamilton. Runners are carrying the torch in small groups until it reaches Tampa and is brought in the night of opening ceremonies at 8:30, Schank –Dugan said.

The small groups that work together to move the torch total 3,000 runners and take a full month from start to finish, carrying the torch 1,700 miles, Schank-Dugan said.

Honorary chairmen Lee Roy Selmon, athletic director at USF, and Sheriff Cal Henderson of Hillsborough County’s Sheriff Department will head the opening ceremonies.

“We consider these games to be a tribute to law enforcement,” Schank-Dugan said. “Twenty years ago, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement wanted to find a way to help Special Olympics and created Special Olympics Mileage Event, in which a handful of officers ran the state. That race is still a major part of this event, and their involvement really means a lot to the event.”

In 1963, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy’s sister, founded the Special Olympics. The Kennedys had a sister with mental retardation and Shriver had the idea of athletics helping people with mental retardation, Schank-Dugan said.

“In 1963, she held a day camp in her own back yard in Maryland. Needless to say, it was a huge success,” Schank-Dugan said.

By 1968, the event had grown to include 1,000 participants and was moved to Soldier Field in Chicago. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Special Olympics as an international organization, and 1.1 million people will participate in the Special Olympics in 160 nations, Schank-Dugan said.

This weekend’s event requires the help of 1,400 volunteers to assist with everything from timing the games to getting ice and equipment. A tent will be set up on the stadium grounds to check in volunteers. If interested in volunteering, help is needed Friday from 2-5 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Schank-Dugan said.

If unable to attend this year’s events, the Sunshine Network will telecast the games in mid-June.

“The summer games will also be in Tampa next year, if people want to think about volunteering for summer games in 2004,” Schank-Dugan said.

Contact Annie Curnowat