Monday night, for the first time, the opening ceremonies of the International Special Olympics summer games will be aired world-wide in prime time from Notre Dame Stadium.

Even with the Pan Am Games gearing up only a couple of hundred miles south in Indianapolis, ABC claims this Special Olympics is the largest world-wide amateur sports event of 1987. Certainly it is the largest world-wide amateur sports event ever for the mentally retarded, and that is more the point.

It promises to be a heckuva splash, with big names in show biz, big names in sports, too, and a big fireworks finale.

But the Special Olympics had modest roots in nearby Rockville, Md., where Eunice Kennedy Shriver set up what she called Camp Shriver in the summer of 1961. Her son, Robert S. Shriver III, 33, executive producer of the extravaganza, recalls that "about 70 high school students from Montgomery County came out as volunteers, one-on-one counselors."

Shriver said the summer-long activities were organized at the large farm the family rented off Rockville Pike, across from what is now White Flint Mall.

"It was the first proof that retarded people could compete in sport and enjoy sport and that young people will work with them," he said. Among the counselors were Robert Shriver's former classmates at the Landon School in Bethesda and students from Stone Ridge Country Day School, which cousin Caroline Kennedy attended, and from various Montgomery County public and private schools.

"She recruited them all, and they responded. I don't know what she would have done if they hadn't, whether she would have concluded that this was a bad idea or what. Knowing my mother, I don't think she would have given it up."

Today, Eunice Shriver is chairman of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which oversees Special Olympics, and she will read the "charge to the athletes" at the opening ceremonies. Her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, is Special Olympics International's president.

Athough the Special Olympics were not formed as a tribute to Eunice Shriver's retarded sister Rosemary Kennedy, Robert Shriver noted that Rosemary's athletically inclined brothers and sisters had always thought there should be sports events for the handicapped as there are for the healthy in mind and body.

From its beginnings at Camp Shriver, which ran summers between 1961 and 1968, the Special Olympics has grown into activities that offer competition all year round at local levels. Some 15,000 local games, meets and tournaments are held each year. The first International summer games were at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 1968; like its namesake, International Special Olympics is scheduled every fourth summer and winter.

Shriver estimated that between 4,500 and 5,400 mentally handicapped athletes -- the youngest, age 7 -- and their coaches representing 73 countries will attend the opening ceremonies Sunday. ABC will carry two hours of the festivities Monday at 9; ABC's "Wide World of Sports" will show highlights of the events on Saturday, Aug. 15.

Country singer Barbara Mandrell, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, Susan Saint James ("Kate & Allie"), Frank Gifford and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife Maria is Robert Shriver's sister, will host the parade of athletes garbed in uniforms of their nationalities.

"The torch lighting is the culmination of the show," said Shriver. "Torches have been run by law enforcement officers from around the country to Soldier Field. The policemen will put their torches in the cauldron there and one torch will be taken out of there to South Bend by policemen ... it's a thread in the show."

Former pro football star Rocky Bleier and Olympian gold medalists Rafer Johnson and Mary Lou Retton will help administer the Special Olympics oath -- "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

The program will also include six "up-close-and-personals" on particular athletes at the games.

Other entertainers include Whitney Houston ("She was great. She just said, 'Tell me what you want me to do,'" enthused Shriver), actors John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Saint James (Shriver calls her one of Special Olympics' "worker bees"), composer Marvin Hamlisch, the Chinese Acrobats of Beijing, Boston Pops' John Williams conducting the U.S. Navy Band in "We're Lookin' Good," a march he wrote for the occasion. Additional athletes include runner Sebastian Coe, swimmer John Naber, soccer star Pele, gymnasts Bart Conner, Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera, plus former football greats Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, and Donna de Varona and Gifford, both members of the board of directors of Special Olympics.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will appear to enunciate the opening words: "Let the Games begin." Actual competition starts Monday.

Shriver, who called himself "a lawyer and a financial guy," said that serving as executive producer of the opening events is "interesting, fascinating. But the business part interests me more than the entertainment." Although he acknowledges that there's "considerably more than a million dollars in the budget, Special Olympics isn't making a nickle, and all the artists are working for scale."

He's particularly pleased that that ABC is carrying the opening ceremonies in prime time. "That this is on prime-time television will put them {the Special Olympics athletes}, in their own minds, on a whole different level of acceptability."

John Brown (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger preparing for the Special Olympics. CONTINUED ON PAGE 35 OLYMPICS FROM PAGE 5