You could see the joy of anticipation on the contestants' faces, especially that of l0-year-old Tycho Veney of Northeast Washington because the 50-meter speed skating event at last weekend's D.C. Special Olympic Winter Games would be his first race on ice.

But while he was smiling at friends in the stands of the Fort Dupont Park Ice Rink, the referee blew the starting whistle. Little Tycho was suddenly left behind.

With one skate pumping furiously and the other holding steady to guide him, the boy struggled to catch up. He pumped his arms. He gritted his teeth. He squeezed his tiny hands into fists and leaned into the first curve. He was gaining on the pack.

When he straightened up, however, his knees locked and his skates began to slide out from under him.

The backward fall would have been an awesome spectacle in any contest. And on this day of special athletes, each with some form of mental retardation or physical disability, the consequences of injury were ominous. But the athletes were courageous, determined to show what they could do. All they wanted was a chance.

It was a tribute to the Special Olympics ice skating instructor, Candy Johnstone, that Tycho did not hurt himself when he fell. But his face appeared locked in fright because of a malformation of his teeth. The condition had caused a speech impediment that slowed his progress in school. Now that he had fallen behind on the ice, the frustration he knew so well showed.

Dejected, he hung his head in despair. It looked like he was out of the race. But then the crowd in the stands started to chant, "Get up and go for it!"

Now the Olympics became really special. No jive, just encouragement--the fuel of desire.

These children, who endure taunts, ostracism and shame because of their handicaps, know this can be an awfully cruel world. Anybody who has ever watched Marlin Perkins' "Wild Kingdom" knows that when it comes to animal instincts, our actions are not so different from those of your basic primate, except that in times of crisis, God knows, even a monkey will not abandon a child.

There are practical questions as well as ethical considerations in contemporary economics that ask, given limited resources, how much should we spend to develop our "best and brightest" and how much we should spend on the less fortunate among us. As we wrangle over this, we would do well to remember that potential counts but performance matters. And the heart and determination shown by these special children last week deserve respect.

When the events ended Sunday afternoon, nearly l,000 children and young adults had participated, along with some 2,000 nameless souls called volunteers--unsung heros all.

Not so long ago, mentally retarded children were literally kept in closets. Just last year, a Midwestern couple admitted to police that they had kept their son locked in an attic for 16 years because they thought he had been cursed.

The boy, like Tycho, had a speech impediment, but by the time authorities found him he was so malnourished he died a few days later. But Tycho's parents didn't give up on him.

And neither did the crowd.

"Get up and go for it," they urged.

Suddenly his classmate, Dexter Davis, 9, who was racing ahead, turned and saw Tycho had fallen.

"Get up, Ty," he yelled. When Tycho looked up and saw Dexter headed for the finish line, he scrambled to his feet.

With his furious one-pump skating style he headed down the stretch. With just few yards to go, he went for it, cycling both feet in an all-out sprint on ice. He crossed the finish line on Dexter's heels in a spectacular tie for third. Dexter was second. It was a four-man race.

No last place.

Electrified by the roar of the crowd, the contestants were too pumped up to stop. In the face of the oncoming rink wall, they all went for a fancy spinout and ended up on their behinds. The tension of the moment quickly melted into relief and they sat on the ice laughing and panting.

The contest was done. It was a race well run.

All were winners this day.