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Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, gives a speech Saturday as balloons fill the sky at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. The athletes could not wait to release their balloons at the end of the program so they did it in the middle to shouts of glee.

Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, gives a speech Saturday as balloons fill the sky at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. The athletes could not wait to release their balloons at the end of the program so they did it in the middle to shouts of glee. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, gives a speech Saturday as balloons fill the sky at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. The athletes could not wait to release their balloons at the end of the program so they did it in the middle to shouts of glee.

Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, gives a speech Saturday as balloons fill the sky at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. The athletes could not wait to release their balloons at the end of the program so they did it in the middle to shouts of glee. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The athletes arrive under aqua-arches for Saturday's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games.

The athletes arrive under aqua-arches for Saturday's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An athlete nets a goal Saturday during the soccer skills competition at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics.

An athlete nets a goal Saturday during the soccer skills competition at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

A cast of costumed characters waited to greet the 884 athletes that participated in Saturday's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics.

A cast of costumed characters waited to greet the 884 athletes that participated in Saturday's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

This athlete was all smiles after competing in the softball throw at this year's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics.

This athlete was all smiles after competing in the softball throw at this year's 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An athlete is all smiles as he and his buddies race for gold in the 30 meter dash at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics held Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Thousands of volunteers and spectators turned out to support 884 local athletes in the biggest games held to date.

An athlete is all smiles as he and his buddies race for gold in the 30 meter dash at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics held Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Thousands of volunteers and spectators turned out to support 884 local athletes in the biggest games held to date. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An athlete embraces Snow White after arriving at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics held Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The event featured 884 athletes and had approximately 2,000 U.S. military and dependent volunteers from all branches of service.

An athlete embraces Snow White after arriving at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics held Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The event featured 884 athletes and had approximately 2,000 U.S. military and dependent volunteers from all branches of service. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Yasuhisa Tomiyama, a 9th grader at Koza Junior High School, was chosen to light this year's Olympic torch.

Yasuhisa Tomiyama, a 9th grader at Koza Junior High School, was chosen to light this year's Olympic torch. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The III MEF band entertains the crowd at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

The III MEF band entertains the crowd at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An athlete and his buddy celebrate as they near the finish line Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. Approximately 2,000 volunteers made the event possible for the games' 884 athletes.

An athlete and his buddy celebrate as they near the finish line Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. Approximately 2,000 volunteers made the event possible for the games' 884 athletes. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

An athlete and his buddy celebrate after they cross the finish line Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. Approximately 2,000 volunteers made the event possible for the games' 884 athletes.

An athlete and his buddy celebrate after they cross the finish line Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics. Approximately 2,000 volunteers made the event possible for the games' 884 athletes. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Army Sgt. Jonathan Bradley, right, shares a special moment with athlete Reiji Ikei, 8, at the Kadena Special Olympics art exhibition Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Army Sgt. Jonathan Bradley, right, shares a special moment with athlete Reiji Ikei, 8, at the Kadena Special Olympics art exhibition Saturday at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Thousands turned out Saturday at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to welcome 884 local athletes to the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games.

Thousands turned out Saturday at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to welcome 884 local athletes to the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The Olympic flame burns as balloons float past in the afternoon breeze Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games.

The Olympic flame burns as balloons float past in the afternoon breeze Saturday at the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The games' 884 athletes march into MacDonald Stadium carrying the banners of their schools to kick off the opening ceremony for the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games Saturday at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The games' 884 athletes march into MacDonald Stadium carrying the banners of their schools to kick off the opening ceremony for the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games Saturday at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Air Force Tech Sgt. Naka Turner’s world was turned upside down two years ago when she was told the baby growing inside her would be born with Down syndrome. Her son was later born free from the genetic disorder that causes mental and physical disabilities, but the experience stayed with her.

Turner was one of the approximately 2,000 U.S. military and dependent volunteers who welcomed 884 Okinawan athletes with disabilities (including six students from Defense Department schools) to the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympic games Saturday, a dramatic increase from the 402 athletes and 500 volunteers from the first base-hosted event in 2000.

Thousands turned out to support the community’s special athletes in what organizers said was the biggest and best games to date.

“It makes you appreciate life and everybody, and who they are,” Turner said of as her eyes welled up with tears, her son by her side. “It’s a great experience. I love it.”

Kadena Air Base pulled out all of the stops for the athletes this year. Participants and their families arrived by bus under crossed fire hose jets and sirens. They were welcomed into the athlete’s village by an array of fictional characters, from storm troopers to the Little Mermaid.

They were paired off with a servicemember “buddy” who would stay by their side for the day. Then they marched into MacDonald Stadium for the parade of athletes and lighting of the Olympic flame.

“The spirit of Special Olympics is foremost one of joy, but also courage, inclusion, pride, and respect,” 18th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Barry Cornish said addressing the crowd. “It is a spirit of acceptance that transcends social and political boundaries; it is a spirit that inspires us all.”

Athletes then participated in events ranging from the 30-meter dash, 50-meter wheelchair dash, soccer, and tennis, to badminton and Frisbee golf. They also featured an exhibit with art made by the athletes.

The Kadena games serve as a feeder program for Japan’s Special Olympics team, said event co-founder Chip Steitz, a senior advisor to Special Olympics Nippon Okinawa and a U.S. Army public affairs officer. Thanks to the games, Okinawan athletes can now officially train and be nominated to participate in the national games in Tokyo. If they fair well there, they can go on to represent their country at the world games.

Steitz affectionately recalled the 2009 floor hockey team that featured athletes from Okinawa. The team took home the gold at the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho.

“It’s an incredible outpouring of humanity,” Steitz said of the games. “Who would have ever dreamed that an Okinawan special needs child could go to Idaho and compete in the world games? And we sent nine of them ... In my wildest dream of dreams, I never thought it would get this big.”

The effect of the games was evident in the smiling faces of the athletes who beamed as they crossed the finish line arms to the sky or stood on the podium to receive their shiny gold, silver, or bronze medals.

“He feels great about himself,” said Defense Department schools teacher Christina Scarborough of her son Teisan, 13, who had two gold medals hanging around his neck. “He takes his medals to school with him to show his friends. It makes him really proud to compete with the other kids.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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