1983 Special Olympics Games in Louisiana: ‘This is what the world is supposed to be like’

BY JACK BARLOW | Staff writer

Forty years ago, Tiger Stadium echoed with the same sort of roar that is usually reserved for the LSU Tigers. Only, that time around, the cheers were directed toward athletes with intellectual disabilities.

The Sixth International Summer Special Olympics Games, held in Baton Rouge from July 12-18, 1983, was the most popular edition of the competition up to that point. Athletes from all 50 states, four U.S. territories and more than 50 countries around the world descended on the city to take part in a spectacle that had been unequalled in the games’ history.

Begun by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, Special Olympics events had been taking place for 15 years by the time the Baton Rouge event rolled around. The previous edition of the summer games had been held in Brockport, New York, in 1979, while the Louisiana edition would be the first time the International Special Olympics would be held in the South.

Close to home, Special Olympics competitions had existed in Louisiana since 1969 through the efforts of Dr. Billy Ray Stokes and Emmanuel Bourgeois, the latter who would become heavily involved in running the Baton Rouge summer games. Preparation for the 1983 event began in 1980, with organizers including Bourgeois and then-director of the LSU Assembly Center, William “Bill” Bankhead.

Bankhead was named the international games’ executive director and later went on to forge a deep relationship with Special Olympics and Shriver. Though Bankhead ended up being involved in a total of seven games that took him all over the world, his initial introduction came as something of a surprise.

“I didn’t have any intention of being involved, but I did have ten years of experience with the Assembly Center so I knew how to put on events,” he said. “When I was asked to do it (by Lynn L. Pesson, then LSU’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs), I did.”

The organizers set ambitions high, which brought plenty of logistical issues. Bankhead said the chief headache was a familiar one — the weather in Louisiana in July. At one point, an afternoon rainstorm tore open the roof of a large tent provided by the Ringling Bros. Circus, while the scorching heat also proved a constant challenge to competitors and volunteers alike.

There were innovations. To accommodate the athletes’ families, the organizers created an ‘adopt a family’ program that saw local sponsors house family members for free. Because of the program, which was later picked up by other Special Olympics events, more than 4,000 family members were able to attend.

Another concern was filling Tiger Stadium. Scouting around for ideas on how to leave no seat upturned, Bankhead asked Tennessee-based Lon Varnell, a former basketball coach turned promoter, what he thought.

“He said, ‘Bill, you’ve got to give them a ticket. If you don’t want to charge, don’t; but do give (something physical) away,'” Bankhead recalled.

Attaching a $5 value to the ticket but giving them away for free, volunteers handed the tickets out at banks, grocery stores, and other readily accessible locations around Baton Rouge. The trick worked. Having something to hold on to proved to be a drawcard for interested parties, and the tickets were rapidly snapped up.

Media also swung in behind the effort, with local coverage aided by headline slots from national outlets. A particularly important moment came when Frank Gifford from ABC’s Wide World of Sports came to Baton Rouge. Finding himself deeply impressed with what he saw, he decided to devote the whole upcoming program to the Special Olympics.

When the time came to get underway, special guests and celebrities — including Muhammad Ali and Art Buchwald — descended on an already-bustling Baton Rouge. Meeting them were 4,300 athletes and 1,100 coaches, the latter including Pelé, Wilt Chamberlain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner. There were so many volunteers that Bankhead recalled they couldn’t all be used, with the official tally ending up at an impressive 5,000. 

The opening ceremony at a packed Tiger Stadium (with a capacity of 78,000 at the time) was unlike anything those in attendance had ever seen. Bankhead recalled Shriver’s speechwriter having to apologize after previously expressing doubts about the ability to fill the stadium. At the time, it turned out to be the largest spectator crowd at a Special Olympics event.

Mart Martin, who now lives in Atlanta, was the event’s public relations director. His memories of the ceremony remain vivid.

“When it filled up, there was such an extraordinary feeling of love and welcome by the people of Louisiana that I’ve never experienced since,” Martin said. “We were in the stadium, and when Frank Gifford said, ‘We could not have a better host than Louisiana,’ I’m telling you, the crowd just exploded.”

Martin said when Louisiana’s large delegation entered the stadium, “a roar you would typically hear reserved for the Tigers on a Saturday night” followed.

“It was constant and it lasted forever,” Martin said. “I have never, ever felt anything like I felt that night in Tiger Stadium.”

The incredible outcome was the culmination of weeks of support from the local community. Martin said the locals embraced it passionately. 

“It was as if time stood still for a week in Baton Rouge so that people could come out and be part of this,” he said. “You kind of felt like you were on another planet, another really good planet, with so much warmth and hospitality. When you’d see people from countries interacting with people from the community who might never have a chance to meet … I’d look at that and think, ‘This is what the world is supposed to be like.'”

Martin said that Louisiana raised the bar for Special Olympics — and it was never the same after that.

“It just continued to get even larger and more inclusive,” he said.

Over the course of the competition, 1,193 gold medals were awarded, with 1,174 silvers and 1,094 bronzes. By all accounts, and in every way, it was a resounding success.

In her opening address, Shriver thanked Bankhead and Bourgeois, along with Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Pat Screen. Calling it “an unforgettable night,” she put the event in a rather superlative historical context.

“Never, not in the Roman Empire, not in the Renaissance, in Egypt, not in imperial China, has anyone anywhere in any time produced an event that compares with this one,” she said. “Each of you has participated in nothing less than the making of history itself.”

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