There's Life After the Olympics

The London Olympics, not to mention the frequent mention of the long-ago Lake Placid Winter Olympics in connection with Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations, has had me reminiscing about a close-to-home Olympian spectacle: the Special Olympics World Summer Games, held in New Haven in July of 1995.

The Special Olympics, intended for athletes with mental disabilities, have been held every four years since the late 1960s.

Last year’s edition was held in Athens, Greece. But these festivities are also within reach of smaller cities such as New Haven, where they are a marvelous test of a community’s organizational zest and spirit.

Bringing the Special Olympics to New Haven took all the same elements that are in play for the un-Special kind: committees, sponsors, donors, entrepreneurs, politicians, foundations and hordes of volunteers,

In New Haven’s case, it helped that the Shriver family had close ties to the city Patriarch Sargent Shriver was Chairman of the Board Emeritus of the Special Olympics. His son Tim lived in Connecticut in the 1980s and ‘90s—attending Yale and UConn, teaching high school and developing special learning programs. Tim eventually became Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.

Big festivals were a sure way of putting small cities on the map in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The economy was rich with internet start-up business keen to sponsor such things, and funding for arts & tourism was considerable rather than controversial.

For such a mammoth event, directly involving thousands of people and less directly involving millions, the 1995 Special Olympics could a major success. But there were tragedies, including the drowning death of a young man on a Special Olympics-oriented outing. There was also a series of setbacks for the small business community, based on miscalculations of how many spectators were likely to turn up for the sporting events which were presumed to be the main attraction of the event. A lot of time, energy and money was spent on Food booths and carts near the UYale Bowl and other tournament areas. It turned out that for many of the sports matches, the crowd was largely composed of families and caregivers of the athletes.

There were also the same matters which plague any Olympics or large-scale festival of any kind: security concerns, traffic closures and other obstacles for those who persist in, say, going to work when the city has been turned upside down for an influx of tourists. Organizers seldom win in these situations—no matter what sort of press release you send out, you’re accused of understating or overstating the concerns, which simply can’t be anticipated well enough to encompass the informational needs of every single commuter or resident.

You might say that the New Haven Special Olympics World Summer Games’ biggest embarrassment was the choice of a headlining act for the nationally televised TV special marking the nine-day event’s closing ceremonies. The act of was Hootie & The Blowfish, already clearly on the way down commercially, following a dizzying debut-album success which even the band’s fans feel may be one of the great mysteries of the modern age. The band itself behaved admirably, following their gig at the Yale Bowl checking out Toad’s Place (which, inconveniently, was hosting a dance nite when the Blowfish sauntered in).

A real opportunity was missed to book verifiably legendary acts and create a show that would live in the community’s collective memory for decades, the way Ray Charles on New Haven Green would just six years later for the New Haven Jazz Festival.

Yet it’s the cultural aspect of the Special Olympics in New Haven which had the most lasting impact. No, I’m not talking about the opportunity to meet Debbie Gibson on a midweek afternoon.

Whether or not specific concerts, personal appearances or booksignings drew crowds (and most didn’t), the sheer organizational challenge of the thing—the proof that New Haven could pull off such a mammoth, multi-pronged event—laid the groundwork for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, which began a year later, and informed such existing enterprises as the Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament and Film Fest New Haven.

It was a heady couple of weeks, I can tell you, having covered it exhaustively. You could find yourself dashing from an underattended swimming or track-and-field competition to an international food array on Long Wharf to a series of bars and dance clubs at night. Reams of press releases and notices were generated. Rules were set and reset. The local media (at a time before a lot of it had even established an online presence) could hardly keep up. I still can’t pass a certain part of Edgewood Park without marveling that an Olympic Village was once ensconced there.

The city continues to reap the benefits of having hosted a daunting and complex international tournament. So we kind of in a small way can relate to what Londoners are going through today.