Updated 05/08/12 – 4:59 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — More than 3,000 athletes from around the city paraded through Soldier Field to kick off the 44th annual Special Olympics Spring games.

Angelina Vasser’s 8-year-old daughter Desire is taking part in the games for the first time.

“She’s so excited. She’s participating in two events, the tennis ball throw and the 100-meter run,” said Vasser.

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“This is a great opportunity for athletes who want to participate who have challenges.”

Events include shot put, high jump, wheelchair races, standing/running long jump and 50-, 100-, and 200-meter run. Track and Field competitions will be held May 9-11 at Eckersall Stadium and Park, 2423 E. 82nd Street.

The first Special Olympics were at Soldier Field in 1968 with 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada. Today, there are more than 5,000 registered Special Olympics athletes in the city of Chicago.

At Tuesday’s opening ceremonies for this year’s Special Olympics, CBS 2’s Rob Johnson sat down with Gov. Pat Quinn to talk about making sure programs for people with disabilities aren’t decimated by state budget cuts.

“The Special Olympics movement – and it is a movement, it comes up from the grass roots – I think inspires all of us, that everyone has value, everyone has something to offer, and everyone should be given that full opportunity,” Quinn said.

But that opportunity comes at a time of tight budgets, and when Quinn is proposing Illinois transition away from the more traditional institutional living setup for those with severe disabilities.

Asked how important it is to him to preserve as many such programs as possible, Quinn said, “Everyone should have that opportunity in life, to go as far as they can.

“And some of our institutions that we’ve had in Illinois, these big facilities, haven’t always provided that for many, many of our families and citizens. So we are restructuring the budget. It doesn’t mean we are cutting it back.”

As for critics who have said programs for the disabled are falling victim to the budget crisis in Springfield, the governor said, “Part of my job is to keep the whole system from collapsing. And sometimes you have to make difficult, controversial decisions; but if you don’t, the common good will suffer. And I don’t want the common good to suffer.”

The governor has headed to Springfield to deal with what he calls the two biggest budget priorities this legislative system: reforming the state’s Medicaid program, and reforming the public pension system. He wants both goals accomplished by the time the legislature’s spring session ends on May 31.

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