LOS ANGELES — Michelle Obama welcomed thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities to the Special Olympic World Games on Saturday during a festive opening ceremony filled with cheers, songs and praise for their courage and determination.
“My husband and I, we are so proud of you, so incredibly proud of you, and we love you all from the bottom of our hearts,” the first lady said. She said the athletes were an example to the millions of people watching the event on television.
She was introduced by Special Olympian Tim Harris, who owns a restaurant in New Mexico that he said serves “breakfast, lunch and hugs!”
Mrs. Obama “knows the power of a hug,” he said, and shared one with the first lady.
Earlier, President Barack Obama welcomed the athletes by video.
About 6,500 athletes from 165 countries streamed into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to cheers and roars. The athletes will participate in 25 sports over nine days, ranging from weightlifting to the triathlon.
L.A. also hosted the Special Olympics in 1972.
Applause greeted the athletes, from some 400 in the United States contingent to a handful each from smaller countries.
It was the largest gathering of athletes in Los Angeles since the 1984 Summer Olympics.
The groups wore distinctive colors but carried no national flags. However, Special Olympics athletes and Olympic gold medalists including swimmer Michael Phelps, diver Greg Louganis and skater Michelle Kwan together carried in the Special Olympics flag.
A flaming torch carried from Greece was used to light the Coliseum’s Olympic beacon.
The three-hour ceremony, broadcast on ESPN, included Special Olympians at every level. Global ambassadors partnered with celebrities onstage and TV commentators.
There were fireworks and musical performances by Avril Lavigne, Stevie Wonder, Colombian reggaeton artist J Balvin and others.
“You are the special people of the world,” Wonder told them. “You are the ones that will make a difference every single day. Your courage, your desire to make the world better by showing your love … (and) in the way that you carry yourself.”
At the beginning of the show, late-night television talk show host Jimmy Kimmel thanked the competitors and the international crowd of spectators for coming and joked about California’s long drought, saying he hoped they brought water.
“That Olympic flame they’re going to light will truly burn forever because we don’t have the water to put it out,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel also praised the athletes. “You remind me of how deeply lazy a man I am,” he said.
The games were the brainchild of President John Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who held informal backyard competitions at her home before deciding to take the competition international in 1968. She said she believed everybody should have a chance to feel special.
On Saturday night her daughter, Maria Shriver, addressed the throng.
“She was so proud of you and wanted more than anything for you to be respected, valued, appreciated for who you are,” Shriver said. “Brave, good, kind, solid, and yes, smart human beings.”