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Thousands converge for Kadena Special Olympics 2015

Participants, volunteers and observers of the Kadena Special Olympics release balloons into the air as the games begin Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Beginning in 2000 with approximately 400 athletes and 600 volunteers, KSO is an 18th Wing community goodwill initiative to strengthen Japan-U.S. relationships. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier/Released)

Yasuhisa Tomiyama, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, lights the torch signaling the start of the games Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. This year marks the 16th anniversary of KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of American and Okinawan special needs individuals on the island. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Amiya Jones, 18th Security Forces Squadron armorer, helps Yuri Yonaha, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, with her badminton skills during the Kadena Special Olympics Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. This year marks the 16th anniversary of KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of American and Okinawan special needs individuals on the island. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lynette M. Rolen/Released)

Airman 1st Class Amiya Jones, a 18th Security Forces Squadron armorer, helps Yuri Yonaha, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, with her badminton skills during the games Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. This year marks the 16th anniversary of KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of American and Okinawan special needs individuals on the island. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lynette M. Rolen)

Kohei Setake, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, wins first place in a 200 meter dash during the Kadena Special Olympics Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Established by the 18th Wing commander in 2000, KSO is a sporting and entertainment event that provides an opportunity for all communities involved to stand together in support of people with special needs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lynette M. Rolen)

Kohei Setake, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, wins first place in a 200-meter dash during the Kadena Special Olympics Nov. 7, 2015, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Established by the 18th Wing commander in 2000, KSO is a sporting and entertainment event that provides an opportunity for all communities involved to stand together in support of people with special needs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lynette M. Rolen)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- About 1,700 volunteers from the U.S. military and local community helped organize the 16th annual Kadena Special Olympics Nov. 7 at the Risner Fitness Center Sports Complex here.

The games were held as an opportunity for more than 850 special needs athletes and their families within the Okinawan community to join Kadena volunteers in a day full of competitive sports and festivities.

"The Kadena Special Olympics is world renowned," said Lt. Gen. John Dolan, the U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force commander. "The 16 years that it's been going on has built each year and I think it's proven its worth with how it's reached out to the community."

The event was off to a loud start when hundreds of volunteers and spectators formed a human pathway to greet and cheer on the arriving athletes as they were shuttled to the fitness center.

The games officially began with an opening ceremony with Dolan, Brig. Gen. Barry Cornish, the 18th Wing commander, and Masaru Machida, the director general of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Executive Office of the Governor, sharing words of encouragement to the athletes.

During the ceremony, Cornish led the crowd in taking the athlete's oath, a tradition that was once repeated by Greek warriors before going into battle, with the common goal to compete with their best efforts and push themselves to new heights.

"The oath states, 'Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt' -- that's just inspiring to all of us," Cornish said. "It's a very emotional day for everybody. When you see these people struggling and doing their very best and you get to put a medal around their neck, it's just a humbling experience."

Each competitor was paired with an athlete's buddy for the day, a volunteer who was designated to watch over and cheer the player throughout the various sporting activities.

Other volunteers helped in a variety of duties including translation, score keeping, medal presentations, logistical and medical support, and food preparation and distribution.

Athletes competed in a variety of events throughout the day, to include track and field, soccer, ground golf, and tennis. About 270 athletes and other special needs participants applied their creativity and displayed pieces of artwork in an art gallery held inside the Risner Fitness Center.

As the base's largest annual event came to a close, plans for next year's event began. Volunteers, both American and Okinawan, are already coordinating dozens of other events and gatherings to raise awareness for the 2016 event.

"The greatest part about the Kadena Special Olympics is that it's an expression of our American values and what we want the local people here to know about us," Cornish said. "The athletes are going to get a lot out of it, but I think it's the people who volunteer and the people who contribute who will get even more out of it."

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