Athletics: A week of inspiration: The Special Olympics in Sheffield come from the very heart of sport. Guy Hodgson reports.

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The Independent Online
THE words would probably be lost on Noureddine Morceli, the Olympic 1500m champion who was reluctant to run in the World Athletics Championships this week because there was no appearance money, but they meant something on Friday night.

'Let me win', the oath of the Special Olympics, was said between the fireworks, dancing and music of the the opening ceremony in Sheffield's Don Valley Stadium, 'but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt'.

Competition in the Special Olympics, the games for those suffering from learning disabilities, began yesterday, acting as an antidote to the widespread conviction that sport and cynicism are marching to a converging beat. For seven days in Sheffield, sport will be played for its own sake and not for its reward. No times will be noted; every participant will receive a medal.

Around 1,700 athletes are taking part in 12 sports in a competition that was first organised 25 years ago for people who were then referred to as 'mentally handicapped'. Four years ago the games were held in Leicester and it was from the Midlands that the Olympic flame was carried to Don Valley this week.

'I know of no one who has watched these events and not been affected in some way,' Glennys Hughes, one of the organisers, said. 'In Leicester the city got completely behind the competitors, the whole place was decorated in the blue and yellow colours of the games. We're hoping Sheffield will be the same.' And possibly the country. BBC Television will devote half an hour's airtime every day this week and there will be an hour's insert into next weekend's Grandstand.

The message on the banners round the city proclaims 'The Olympic Flame will burn in Sheffield' and in the Hillsborough Leisure Centre yesterday it was metaphorically ablaze. Not half a mile from where Wednesday and Arsenal were locking horns in the Carling Premiership, around 40 athletes were going through a volleyball equivalent of compulsory figures. Next door the power lifting was taking place.

As a sporting spectacle it looked like chaos; as an inspiration it was unflawed. 'The games are a chance for people who do not always get a chance or have the confidence to express themselves,' Hughes said. 'We hope they will encourage other people with learning disabilities to take up sports.'

The legacy of the World Student Games still hangs over a city which lost more than pounds 10m hosting them three years ago. 'Sheffield people hear the word games and they suspect they will have to dip into their pockets,' the games director, Stephen Catton said, 'but we hope these will change impressions. The total cost is pounds 1.15m and we are over the pounds 1m mark thanks to sponsorship and public donations. We are close to balancing the books.'

The worst outcome now would be a loss of pounds 70,000 and that is reckoning without taking into account ticket sales on the night of the opening ceremony and without programme sales.

The biggest corporate gifts have come from Coca-Cola and Sanderson Electronics (pounds 50,000 each) while Sportsmatch, the government agency set up to encourage industry to back sport, has donated pounds 75,000. More remarkably, however, more than 2,000 people have given up their free time to act as volunteers.

Willie Thorne, the snooker player, is among the patrons. 'Being able-bodied,' he said, 'one takes for granted everyday functions. It is only when one has the chance to meet and see talented, skilful sportsmen and women in the Special Olympics you start to realise that pleasure sees no physical boundaries.'

In Sheffield at least this week taking part will be the important thing.