The Special Olympics for people with mental disabilities will be held for the first time in Asia next year.  The summer games will be held in Shanghai, and organizers are already using the occasion to raise awareness among the Chinese public about the mentally disabled. 

Friday's kickoff event for the October 2007 Games featured a group of Chinese celebrities, including the country's most famous athlete.

ANNOUNCER:  "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming!"

Yao, the 226-centimeter-tall National Basketball Association all-star, is the 2007 Special Olympics Ambassador. He shared the stage with three young Special Olympics athletes who are featured in a series of television and print advertisements for the Shanghai Games.

The games' promoters say mental disabilities are a taboo in China, and the mentally disabled are routinely ignored.  

Yao Mingbao, who heads the organizing committee for the 2007 Games, says officials hope the television campaign will help raise awareness of the mentally disabled among the public.

"As we all know, Special Olympics people with disabilities are able to gain happiness from competition and sports. It will increase their confidence," he said.  "Through cooperation, they will feel care and love in society, and will be better integrated into society."

China has more than 550,000 Special Olympics athletes, out of the more than 2.2 million worldwide.  Wu Fangmiao is one of the Chinese athletes featured in the advertising campaign, and he was quizzed at the promotional event about his interests.

Wu says he is a strong basketball player, and - naturally - his favorite player is Yao Ming. 

Special Olympics organizers estimate there are more than 13 million intellectually disabled people living in China, many of whom could benefit from the attention, community support and physical exercise that the Special Olympics provide.

With more than 10,000 athletes and coaches, 20,000 spectators and as many as 40,000 volunteers from 150 countries expected at the Shanghai Games, organizers say this will be China's largest international sports event, until the following year when Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympic Games.