The sailing competition gets under way at the Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: Francisco Lobos)
This year's 7,000 Special Olympians will compete in 18 official sports.* Some will play as individuals. Others will join forces with teammates. All will strive to deliver their best performance.

One of the Special Olympics' original sports, swimming made its first splash at the Games in 1968. Events range in length—from 15 meters to 1,500 meters. Athletes compete in a variety of events, including the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle, as well as several medley races. Nearly 700 athletes competed in aquatics at the 1999 Summer Games in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Special Olympics' most popular sport, athletics test competitors' endurance, speed, and strength. Athletes participate in a wide range of events—including the 100-meter dash, the marathon, the hurdles, the shot put, the high jump, and the long jump. A total of 1,363 athletes from 149 countries participated in the sport at the 1999 Summer Games.

Badminton is often compared to tennis, but while both sports require a net and a racket, badminton has its own unique characteristics. Unlike tennis, the badminton net is raised up off the court. The badminton court is smaller than a tennis court. Badminton rackets are smaller and lighter than tennis rackets. And instead of smashing a tennis ball, badminton players whack a shuttlecock, which is not allowed to bounce on the court first. Special Olympians will play in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles events.

Special Olympians have been playing hoops since 1968, when basketball made its debut at the First International Summer Games in Chicago, Illinois. More than 500 athletes competed in the sport at the 1999 Summer Games. This year, athletes will deliver another slam-dunk performance in individual skills competitions and team games.

Bocce is a fairly new sport at the Special Olympics, having only made its debut in 1991. However, by 1999, it was already attracting nearly 200 athletes to the Games. Bocce requires a mix of coordination and strategy. Each player rolls two balls toward a target called the pallino ball. Players are awarded points for the balls that land closest to the pallino ball. Bocce can be played as both an individual and team sport.

Homer Fleming practices his bowling skills at Edgewood Bowl in Neosho, Missouri, in May. Fleming is one of 16 Missouri athletes chosen to compete in the 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held June 20–29 in Ireland. (Photo: the Joplin globe, Noppadol Paothoong/AP Wide World)
Bowling made its first appearance at the Olympics in 1987 with 33 athletes, all from the United States. But less than a decade later, more than 450 athletes from 23 countries were hitting the lanes. Athletes participate in singles, doubles, and team events.

Stephen Brown races ahead of David Nicol at the Special Olympics Ireland National Games 5K Road Race in 2002. Brown and Nicol are from Great Britain.(Photo: Sportsfile)
After making its debut at the 1987 Special Olympics, cycling was adopted as an official Special Olympics sport one year later. At the most recent Games in 1999, 160 athletes from 23 countries pedaled their way toward the finish line. Cycling events range from a 5-kilometer contest to a grueling 40-kilometer road race.

Elizabeth Bracken on Buzz during the Trial Ride at the Special Olympics Ireland National Games in June 2002. (Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
This summer, equestrian sporting events will celebrate their 20th anniversary at the Special Olympics. Since the first competition was held in Louisiana back in 1983, athletes from around the world have saddled up to test their horse-riding skills. Special Olympians compete in a variety of events, including relays, drill teams, and jumping contests.

A Special Olympics favorite, football, commonly known as soccer in the U.S., demands both teamwork and kicking skills. With more than 1,000 athletes turning out at the 1999 Games, competition is sure to heat up again as teams from around the world go head-to-head.

Special Olympians first teed off at the World Games in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1995. This year, athletes hope to bring a stroke of luck to the Games, as they show off their skills on the green. Athletes will compete in both 9-hole and 18-hole tournaments.

Less than a dozen athletes tumbled their way into Special Olympics history when gymnastics made its debut at the 1972 Games in Los Angeles, California. By 1999, nearly 300 gymnasts from 41 countries turned out to compete. Women's artistic events include the uneven bars, the balance beam, vaulting, and floor exercises. Men's events include the pommel horse, the rings, the parallel bars, the horizontal bar, vaulting, and floor exercises. Women also compete in rope, hoop, ball, and ribbon rhythmic events.

In 1999, more than 200 weightlifters tested their strength at the Summer Games. This year, athletes once again will try to outmuscle the competition in three basic lifts—the squat, the bench press, and the dead lift.

When roller-skating first wheeled into action at the 1987 Games, it was an all-American derby. Now, the sport attracts athletes from more than a dozen countries. Skaters will compete in a variety of artistic, speed, and hockey events.

Special Olympians first set sail in 1995. Just four years later, more than 70 sailors from a dozen countries took to the seas. This year, sailors will compete in both solo and team races.

Table Tennis
Blistering shots can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour, so table-tennis athletes must have quick reflexes. Dozens of players from around the world are expected to turn out for this year's contests, which feature singles and doubles matches.

Team Handball
The ultimate team sport, team handball is often described as water polo on dry land. Athletes must be quick on their feet, as they can only hold the ball for five seconds without moving. During the 1999 Games, 11 teams showed up to give it their best shot. This year's Games will once again attract the sport's top Special Olympians.

Athletes from only three countries competed in tennis at the 1987 Games. Just 12 years later, however, players from 23 countries competed in tennis events. This year, Special Olympians will try to ace their opponents as they take part in singles and doubles matches, as well as individual skills competitions.

Once a Special Olympics sport dominated by men, volleyball has experienced a surge in female participation. While the 1987 Games featured four female teams and 11 male teams, women's teams outnumbered men's teams, 17 to 13, at the 1999 Games in Raleigh, North Carolina. When it comes to this year's competition, both men and women hope to serve up a winner.

*Special Olympians will also compete in three demonstration sports—kayaking, judo, and pitch & putt.