Kadena Special Olympics continues to break down barriers in event’s 18th year
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2017
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Air Force Staff Sgt. Lionel Rhone dressed up like Superman over the weekend to greet a group of special athletes who are far more courageous than the Man of Steel.
Rhone was among more than 2,000 U.S. military and dependent volunteers who helped 832 Okinawans with intellectual and physical disabilities compete in Saturday’s 18th annual Kadena Special Olympics. Participants came from every corner of Japan’s southern island prefecture for a chance to win a medal in events ranging from the 30-meter dash to basketball.
Rhone, who works with the 18th Security Forces Squadron, said he was warmed by the spirit and smiles of Okinawa’s special-needs community.
“It’s awesome to be out here and to see all of these competitors and their family members and all the community, Air Force, Marines, Army and the Navy,” he said just before a young athlete wearing large-framed glasses approached.
“Hey buddy,” Rhone said with an enthusiastic smile. He gave a high-five to the young boy, who walked away beaming.
“It brings smiles to our faces,” he said. “We can’t ask for anything better.”
The event kicked off — as it always does — with the athletes arriving by bus to the cheers of hundreds of spectators. The buses passed under a water tribute from the fire department as sirens announced their presence.
As the competitors entered athlete’s village, volunteers dressed as famous fictional characters like Rhone’s Superman, Darth Vader, Waldo and Pikachu, greeted them with high-fives. They were then paired with a servicemember “buddy” to escort them from event to event.
The opening ceremony included a parade and the lighting of the torch.
“[Kadena Special Olympics] is about fellowship. KSO is about the triumph of the human spirit,” 18th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Case Cunningham told the crowd before the games began. “KSO is about strengthening feelings of inclusiveness in our communities. But most of all, it is about the athletes.”
The athletes then dispersed around the complex to events such as wheelchair softball throw, tennis, badminton, golf, soccer and the standing long jump.
One athlete scorched the competition in the 200-meter dash, leaving everyone, including his U.S. military buddy, in his dust. The young servicemember rushed to catch up from half a track length behind.
“He’s so fast,” she said.
The Okinawa games were started by KSO co-founder Chip Steitz, a former Army public affairs officer, and a small group of cohorts who hosted about 100 athletes at a park in their first year. He has since grown the event into a behemoth that boasts corporate and community sponsorship.
“[The size of the event today] absolutely amazes me,” Steitz said. “But it’s not only the number of athletes … it’s the success we’ve made in the local communities for people to understand more about people with intellectual and physical disabilities. We really have made a difference. That’s what warms my heart the most.”
Kadena’s Special Olympics athletes train a full year for a chance to earn coveted gold, silver or bronze medals. The event also serves as a feeder program for Japan’s national Special Olympics team.
The games have become a unifying force on an island sometimes known for its divisions. Okinawan political leaders were in attendance Saturday, in addition to the U.S. military leadership. No politics was discussed; it was all about the athletes.
“It really breaks down barriers,” Steitz said. “It brings so much joy and happiness. I’m really happy the way it all turned out.”