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Metrodome memories: In 1991, the Special Olympics come to town


"Metrodome Memories" is a regular BringMeTheNews feature that will recount the good, bad and ugly until the Dome sweet Dome is dismantled forever.

During a stretch in 1991 into 1992, the Metrodome was likely the most busy venue on earth as far as hosting big-time sporting events. Within a span of five months, the Dome hosted a World Series, a Super Bowl and an NCAA men's basketball Final Four, the only venue to ever do so.

But in July of 1991, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome hosted a worldwide event that seems to be almost forgotten by now: The International Special Olympics.

The event brought thousands of athletes from around the world, and promised to be a big-name affair as well, as this old Associated Press clip reveals:

In fact, the event started on July 19 and ran until the 27, and Prince kicked off the opener with a rare Metrodome performance. (Exactly what the Purple One played is lost to the fog of time – "Diamonds and Pearls" sounds right – but there's plenty of discussion of it on this chat board.)

Thanks to this blog, there's a first-person account of a Minnesotan who attended and volunteered for that week:

"There were many high points in those few days, but nothing higher than the closing ceremony at the Minneapolis Metrodome. I was among the sea of folks, participants, coaches and volunteers, who waited for what seemed like hours for the opportunity to walk into the Metrodome to what was a tumultuous welcome. Even as I write, 18 years later, I get teary-eyed remembering that extraordinary evening to honor not only the competitors, but the entire 'intellectually disabled' community worldwide."

The event was seen around the world, and ABC television devoted a two-hour closing ceremony to the event called "Victory and Valor."

Bill Lester, who oversaw the Dome as the director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission for 25 years, recalled it as one of his favorite moments of his career in this Pioneer Press story from August of 2012, especially recalling "the opening ceremonies when athletes from around the world marched onto the floor of the stadium."

In a Star Tribune story from a month earlier, Lester expressed the same sentiment: "Of all the events, however, Lester said he took the greatest satisfaction in seeing the Dome host the opening ceremonies for the 1991 International Special Olympics," the paper said.

Still, much of the event seems relegated to the dustbin on the Internet, buried by so much information, but some online library searches helps round out the picture.

"Movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger received Tuesday the Olympic flame, lighted by rays of the sun, and started it on a 20-day journey to the Special Olympic Games beginning July 19 in Minneapolis, Minn.," began a United Press International story from Athens, Greece on May 14, 1991.

"At a ceremony on Pnyx Hill, in the shadow of the Acropolis, Schwarzenegger received the flame from a teenage girl dressed as an ancient Greek priestess, and held it aloft while addressing the crowd.

"'This flame means daring, comradeship, competition and skills and it will be taken all the way from here to Minneapolis to illuminate for one week the Special Olympics,' Schwarzenegger said."

In a Washington Post story from August 11, 1991, with the headline "Special games offer reminder of what sports are really about," the writer notes "6,000 other athletes from some 100 countries in Minneapolis for the 1991 International Special Olympics. No sporting event in the world this year is larger: In addition to the 6,000 athletes from ages 8 to 69 competing in several dozen individual and team events, 30,000 volunteers were on hand."

The Post reported the attendance over seven days was 129,000.

USA Today, for some reason, tallied the waste that was recycled from the Games, including "2 million polystyrene cups, 50,000 bottles and cans, paper products equal to 800,000 napkins and 10,000 lbs. of food waste for composting."

Here's a July 22, 1991 dispatch from Minneapolis for the Independent of London:

"Early yesterday morning, the Olympic flame was lit in the giant Metrodome here, marking the beginning of the 1991 Special Olympics. The fact that these Games, the biggest sporting event in the world this year, featuring 6,000 competitors from 105 countries, will pass by almost unnoticed may be due to one single factor: all the competitors are mentally handicapped to some degree. ...

Here there are no multi- million-dollar sponsorship deals with star athletes, no media hype, no drug scandals - and everyone has a chance of winning. ...

What is perhaps more important, however, is the survival of the spirit of the original Games - the celebration of the glory of individual achievement."

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