Created by the Illinois General Assembly as a program of the Governor’s Council on Health and Physical Fitness and enthusiastically announced in June 1983 by Governor Jim Thompson, the Prairie State Games began with a promise that the state’s premier athletic event would be privately financed and no tax dollars would be needed. Soon corporate and private funding and sponsors began to flow into the games, with investors looking to get involved with what was seen as a winning initiative. The plans came together quickly with the first-ever games held during July of 1984. For the following 11 years, the games were held every summer.
The structure was simple - modeled after the Olympics with opening and closing ceremonies, a parade of athletes, keynote speakers and dignitaries in attendance. The state was sectioned off into 8 “districts,” and athletes would compete against others in their district starting in the spring with the winners moving on to the finals which were held in Champaign-Urbana during the third week of July. Any resident of Illinois could pay the $10 entry fee and compete in any event which held great appeal to all athletes throughout the state. Individual and team competitions included swimming, diving, track & field, basketball, shooting, weightlifting, archery, boxing, soccer, volleyball, fencing and eventually bowling and tennis.
The competition was primarily held on the UI campus; however, at times, events were scheduled for local high schools and community parks. All activities were free and open to the public, which ensured a decent-sized crowd for most events, something that was very important to the organizers as well as the athletes. There were many benefits to the games – promoting health and fitness, bringing people and revenue to the Champaign- Urbana area, as well as providing training and competition opportunities to athletes that hoped to go on to the Olympics or into professional sports.
The games entailed a lot of work, and the only paid staff were the regional directors. Everyone else that worked on the games did so in a volunteer capacity. The games endured a scandal in 1992 that dragged on for a few years and concerned poor financial decisions and legislative calls for audits and other accounting changes. In 1994, after bids were solicited to host the finals, the event was moved to Peoria.
The last Prairie State Games were held in 1995. In 1999 the State Games of America formed, bringing Olympic-style events featuring competition between State Games medal winners (gold, silver, bronze) from across the nation. There are currently 30 states conducting or organizing statewide sports festivals known as State Games; however Illinois does not participate.
Many well-known local athletes were part of the Prairie State Games over the years. Some recognizable names that went on to other athletic pursuits are Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, Kendra Gantt, Tim Hardaway, and Marcus Liberty in basketball, Caren Kemner in volleyball, Dana Miroballi in track and Bob Bass in bowling. But many, many more athletes competed just for the exhilaration of it all and the chance to win a medal as one of the best in the state.
- Ann P.