Florida's Sunshine Games still provide inspiration

For the past 35 years, Florida’s Sunshine Games have provided an outlet for amateur athletes to compete across the state and have helped contribute to Florida’s impressive sports industry. And the games – part of a$36 billion industry that provides 434,000 jobs to citizens of the state – owe their roots to a humble beginning.

The 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, provided Americans with a lot of inspirational moments. Bruce Jenner became a household name after winning the decathlon. The careers of sprinter Edwin Moses and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard were launched and they became international celebrities in their respective sports. In gymnastics, Nadia Comeneci captured the hearts of television viewers worldwide.

However, it was a couple of influential sports fans watching on television that launched an idea for Florida athletes of all ages and skill levels, which has become an amateur sports tradition celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

In the summer of 1976, then State Sen. Bob Graham and his neighbor, Bill Arnsparger, a coach for the Miami Dolphins and several other NFL teams, were watching the Olympics and were surprised at how infrequently the state of Florida was mentioned as the home state of U.S. athletes.

Their curiosity as to why led to an inquiry to find out a disappointing number that explained why his home state was mentioned so infrequently. Only nine members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team were from Florida.

“I was starting my run for Governor, and Bill and I decided if I was elected, we would try and do something to increase that number,” Graham said.  “The end goal turned out to be the creation of the Sunshine State Games.”

Graham was elected Governor of Florida in 1978, and he and Arnsparger followed through on the plan creating the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Other influential Florida leaders such as Jim Smith, Joe Robbie, George Steinbrenner and Hugh Culverhouse, joined the cause to make the Games come to life.

When the Sunshine State Games debuted in 1980, it became the second State Games in the U.S. coming two years after the Empire State Games debuted in New York. Since that time, the Empire State Games did not compete for three years between 2009-12 and the Sunshine State Games are the longest continuously running state games in the U.S.

“There aren’t a lot of things that last 35 years and I’m glad to see the idea of developing athletes with Olympic sports backgrounds has taken hold,” said Graham. “It makes me proud that the Sunshine State Games are the longest continuously running Games and the concept is achieving its objective of Floridians representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games.”

Registration is still open for a few sports of the Sarasota County Festival, to be held June 6-8 in Sarasota County, the Polk County Festival, June 21-22 in Polk County, and the Sunshine State Games Track and Field Championships (June 21), Water Polo Championships (June 27-29) and Badminton Championships (June 28-29).

You can go here to find more information.

Enterprise Florida

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Dean Anderson

Based in Rome, Dean Anderson is an awarding-winning freelance journalist with 23 years of experience as a writer and photographer. Dean is a freelance contributor for a number of publications including the Associated Press. He enjoys spending his free time traveling Europe w...

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