Special Olympics opens with Shanghai extravaganza

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SHANGHAI, Oct 2 (Reuters) China opened the 2007 Special Olympics today with a star-studded ceremony that put the country at the forefront of the global movement to aid mentally disabled people -- and also served domestic political goals.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor Colin Farrell and film star Jackie Chan were among dignitaries at the opening for the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai.

Over 7,000 mentally disabled athletes from some 160 nations are taking part in the games, making them the largest Special Olympics ever -- a public relations coup for China as it seeks to soften its image as an emerging economic superpower.

''We hope the Special Olympics will help foreign visitors better understand the host country,'' state television quoted President Hu Jintao, who attended the ceremony at a futuristic 80,000-seat stadium in China's top commercial city, as saying.

Mental health care has until recently received little attention in China, so Shanghai's hosting of the games was seen as an important step for the Special Olympics movement, which uses sports training and athletic competition as therapy.

It is only the second time the Special Olympics have been held outside the United States, and the first time in Asia. More than 1,000 of the athletes at the games are from China.

Schwarzenegger, whose mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver laid the foundation for the movement in 1962, focused on China's growing role in a speech at the ceremony.

''I used to play in action movies, as an action hero. But that was absolutely nothing compared to the action in this stadium,'' he said.

In addition to burnishing China's international image, the Special Olympics fits closely with Hu's domestic political goal of creating a ''harmonious society'', in which he hopes to ease the tensions caused by breakneck economic growth by promoting social solidarity and concern for the disadvantaged.

Hu's meetings with Special Olympics athletes have received heavy coverage by state media in recent days. Posters plastered around Shanghai exhort citizens to ''build a civilised society'' in the spirit of the games.

A successful Special Olympics could help rehabilitate Shanghai on the national political stage after a huge corruption scandal last year reduced the city's influence. Beijing views the games as something of a dry run for its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

REUTERS RS KP2348

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