NEWARK, N.J. – The Prudential Center played host to a grand celebration of unity and sportsmanship as the Special Olympics kicked off the 2014 USA Games with a parade of athletes, state officials, volunteers and WWE Superstars alike.
With WWE Superstars Big Show and David Otunga standing alongside Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon, WWE was well represented at the star-studded event as a Special Olympics founding partner, with flags outside the Prudential Center bearing the logos of both organizations.
Until June 21, the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games will celebrate the Special Olympics movement, promote the ideals of acceptance and inclusion through sport, and showcase the abilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities. WWE will serve as the Official Production Partner of the Special Olympics USA Games, recording the Opening Ceremonies as well as producing daily recaps of the sporting competitions and special events throughout the games. Superstars and Divas will play a special role at the USA Games, cheering on athletes and taking part in medal presentations, as well as joining the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
The kickoff for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games began with a "Founders Reception" in the Prudential Center concourse, where athletes, coaches and sponsors mingled and celebrated the growth of the Special Olympics into an event that, as Emmy and Peabody Award–winning television journalist Jack Ford said, "changed perceptions, changed lives and, indeed, in many ways, changed the world."
Evoking Winston Churchill's famous advice to "never run away from anything, and never give up," Ford extolled the virtues of the Special Olympics athletes, who will compete in events from powerlifting to bocce across the Garden State all week.
"Not only have [the athletes] never run away from anything, but they have spent their lives running toward these hurdles, and they have never, ever given up." Ford said.
WWE Superstar Big Show concurred. "These are tremendous athletes that have overcome many obstacles to achieve their dream," he said. "They made sacrifices to be an Olympic competitor and the fact that, for myself as a WWE Superstar, I get to come out here and potentially inspire these athletes when in all actuality, it’s the athletes that inspire me."
"It’s [an unbelievable partnership]," Otunga said. "WWE’s a founding partner; we’re doing so much stuff with the Special Olympics. We have all our Superstars signing autographs each day, we’re producing the Opening Ceremony … and we’re also raising awareness and advertising through all of WWE programming."
The ceremony itself is also raising awareness and advertising through honoring not just the athletes, but also the 10,000 volunteers supporting the Games. The highlight was a joyous parade of each state’s delegations that included the Superstars. Otunga flanked Team Illinois, and Stephanie McMahon accompanied Team Connecticut as its Honorary Chairperson.
Musical interludes by singer Michael DelGuidice and his band Big Shot (whose members have toured alongside the likes of Billy Joel, Carlos Santana and Enrique Iglesias) and a show-stopping performance of “Defying Gravity” by the cast of Broadway’s “Wicked.” “Glee” actress Jane Lynch also helped to deliver a key address at the halfway point alongside a parade of guests that included Big Show and Otunga, while “America’s Got Talent” contestant David Garibaldi painted an impromptu portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose humanitarian work led to the birth of the Special Olympics.
The evening was bookended by a pair of magnificent performances: first a rocking rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” by rock band Madison Rising, whose lead singer is a U.S. Navy veteran, and a soaring “Dreams Are Possible” was performed by LaShell Griffin. The proceedings were emceed by Brooklyn Decker and Philadelphia 76ers star and 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. In addition to the week’s upcoming Games, the Opening Ceremonies were chronicled by WWE for an upcoming hourlong special, “Celebrating Champions,” to air June 30 on Fox Sports 1 and as Stephanie put it, tell “the stories through the eyes of the athletes.”
TJ Nelligan, the Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics USA Games, took a few moments on the podium to deliver one of the evening’s most passionate speeches. "We have always known the remarkable talents of our athletes," he said. "It’s exciting to finally reveal to the world America’s champions."
Speaking as the father of a Special Olympian himself, Nelligan spoke of the widespread importance of the Games. "We encourage the world to view our children as we do; strong … individuals who have the power to change the world, one perception at a time.
"You inspire us all to be better people," Nelligan said to the assembled athletes or “Champions.” "You inspire greatness in everyone. "
Companies including Toys R Us and the New Jersey Sports & Exhibition Authority supported the events. Stephanie also spoke at length about WWE’s unique ability as a founding partner to broadcast the message of the Games, as well as the fundamental, philosophical kinship the two organizations share.
"One of WWE’s key pillars of community service is Diversity & Inclusion," she said. "And one of Special Olympics’ pillars is acceptance and inclusion. So our ability to get the Special Olympics message out there through our many, many channels, whether it’s the 13 million viewers we reach every week in the United States alone, or it’s through our 350 million social media followers, we have the opportunity to spread the message about Special Olympics and give back.
"I am so excited to walk out there with the athletes," she continued. "I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of them through several events. They are excited, they’re ready, they are dedicated, and they are passionate. Truly, they are the inspiration to us all. "
The evening came to a close with a literal, on-the-spot assembly of the Games’ torch with an assist from Big Show, but it was Nelligan’s closing remarks earlier in the evening that summed up the spirit of the evening, and the week to come, as a whole: “Have fun!”
For more on the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, visit www.2014specialolympics.org.