SOUTH BEND, IND., AUG. 8 -- Sports has been this city's middle name ever since Knute Rockne suggested to the fellas that the Gipper was worth a football victory.

But the Seventh International Summer Special Olympics Games will be remembered for problems and disappointments, as well as for Gipperesque glory.

The week-long 1987 Special Olympics ended here last night in a blaze of ceremony inside Notre Dame's Edmund Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. What did not end was the controversy these games touched off.

These were by far the biggest Special Olympic games ever staged. More than 4,700 mentally retarded athletes between the ages of 8 and 81 took part. They came from all 50 states and from 72 foreign countries as far away as American Samoa and Austria.

The exploits of the athletes were lavishly covered by the worldwide media. The games were underwritten to the tune of $5.8 million by such heavyweight corporate sponsors as AT&T and IBM. High-profile sports and showbiz stars like Michael Jordan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were on hand to press the flesh.

But the stars fled town as soon as they could. And the spirit of the games -- in which all participants are supposedly winners -- may have fled, too.

Much of the trouble centered around last Sunday night's opening ceremonies, which were nationally televised a day later by ABC.

Schwarzenegger and Jordan were prominently featured in the coverage. But the next morning, when they were scheduled to conduct weightlifting and slam-dunking exhibitions, neither superstar showed up. They had left town as soon as they had gotten their national exposure.

Meanwhile, dozens of Special Olympians and their parents groused about their treatment at the hands of ABC on Sunday.

Athletes were asked to line up at 4:30 p.m. for the opening parade into Notre Dame Stadium. But because ABC had technical problems, the grand entrance had to be staged and videotaped three times, in 90-degree weather. The athletes -- most of whom were scheduled to compete the next morning -- did not get back to their dorms until after 11 p.m. Most had had nothing to eat or drink for more than six hours.

"You've got to wonder whether the priority is the kids or the TV cameras," said Evelyn McKenzie, the mother of a Special Olympian from Missouri.

Other parents complained that coaches were preaching victory at all costs, rather than the sportsmanship on which Special Olympics prides itself.

"I always thought the Special Olympics was about participating," said one parent from North Carolina. "But my son was in a basketball game and the other coach was acting like Bobby Knight out there. And his kids were taking their cues from that. They wouldn't even shake hands with my son's team before the center jump."

Still, the 1987 games were rich with the improbable, the laughable and the unforgettable.

Improbable: Oklahoma's men's basketball team led New York's, 42-14, early in the second half. It looked like a good time to step out for a soda.

Not so fast. New York went to a textbook John Wooden full-court press. Oklahoma turned the ball over 10 times in a row. New York scored 32 of the next 35 points and took the lead, 46-45, with 1:06 left. But then the exhausted New Yorkers turned the ball over themselves twice in the last minute. They lost by three.

"Most amazing game I've ever seen," said one of the referees, who added that he has seen (and reffed) more than 5,000.

Laughable: Hugging is a major part of Special Olympics. Parents, coaches or bystanders may be called upon to hug an athlete at any moment. The idea is to offer congratulations in a way that even the most severely retarded child can understand.

But one gymnast from New York had all the angles figured. As soon as she had finished her stint on the uneven parallel bars, she flung herself into the arms of her coach. They bearhugged each other -- and in mid-hug, the gymnast wiped the resin from her hands onto the back of the coach's shirt.

Unforgettable: Vic Voltaggio, an American League baseball umpire, happened to be assigned to a White Sox-Blue Jays series in Chicago Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The games were all at night, so Voltaggio drove 194 miles roundtrip each of the three days to see his retarded 11-year-old son compete.

"This is what sports is really all about," Voltaggio said.

For north central Indiana, the games were really all about money. The South Bend-Mishawaka Chamber of Commerce estimated that $10 million was spent here during the Special Olympics.

But perhaps the most accurate measure of how thoroughly the Special Olympics took over The Town Of The Irish came on Monday.

Notre Dame named Richard Rosenthal its new athletic director that morning. As South Bend news stories go, they don't get much bigger.

But Rosenthal delayed giving his inaugural press conference until Tuesday because he was committed to playing in a celebrity softball game on the first day of the Special Olympics. No one from the local media objected.

The Eighth International Summer Special Olympics have not been awarded yet. Foreign contingents were lobbying hard here to stage the games outside the United States for the first time. But Special Olympics officials said that 1995 is a more likely year for that to happen than 1991. They also said that Washington, D.C., is one of the cities being considered for 1991.

In the meantime, Notre Dame is trying hard to get back to normal -- which means preparing for the football season. But Special Olympics turned the heads of three Notre Dame football players.

During the gymnastics finals Thursday night, the three players were lumbering toward the VARSITY ATHLETES ONLY weight room at the back of the Joyce Center. They stopped to watch the women's balance beam finals.

"You know," one player was overheard saying to another, "I don't think half the people we played last year tried as hard as these kids are trying."