The first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896; the Paralympics made its debut in 1960. Soon after, another international sports competition began: the Special Olympics. This worldwide organization is dedicated to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. And while Special Olympics is known for its World Games which are held every two years, the the organization also provides support for these athletes and their families throughout the year, in the form of training sessions, health checks, etc.
Read on to learn more about the history of Special Olympics and its impact on the lives of these athletes.
Eunice Kennedy (later Eunice Kennedy-Shriver) was born on July 10, 1921, and was the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. While her brothers embarked on impactful political careers (which she helped support), it was her sister, Rosemary, who inspired Eunice’s life’s work.
Rosemary Kennedy was born with an apparent Intellectual disability in 1918, which included learning difficulties and violent mood swings that progressively worsened as she got older. At the age of 23, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Sr., brought him in for an experimental trial prefrontal lobotomy that the doctors said would help. But according to JFK librarythe operation left her “permanently incapacitated”, and Rosemary was then sent to an institution in Wisconsin, where she lived until her death in 2005. Rosemary’s condition and institutionalization were concealed to the public for decades, until Eunice penned a writing on the subject in the Saturday night post in 1962. (The full story of lobotomy won’t come out until 1987.)
In the essay, she wrote about how close she was to her sister, for whom she said, “winning at anything has always brought her a wonderful smile.” She then urged the public to destigmatize intellectual disabilities. The article caused a stir, but Eunice was just getting started.
With limited summer activities at the time for children with special needs, Shriver decided his first move was to open a summer camp right in his own court. She decided to host Camp Shriver at her farm in Maryland and called local schools and clinics to find children who might want to come. His first group included 34 children who spent their time riding horses, playing sports and generally having fun. Over the years she ran Camp Shriver, attendance grew to about 100 happy campers.
Anne McGlone Burke encouraged similar ambitions to create spaces where young people with intellectual disabilities could thrive through sport. Burke worked as a physical education teacher at the Chicago Park District, which received a $10,000 grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation to start a recreation program for students with special needs. After attending a conference on the benefits of physical activity for children with developmental disabilities, Burke decided to plan a city-wide track meet for his students.
Burke traveled to Washington, D.C. to gain Shriver’s endorsement and financial support, but Shriver thought the vision could grow into a multi-sport event that would include kids from across the country. The result of their collaboration was the inaugural Special Olympics, which took place at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 1968 and hosted 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada.
What started in America quickly spread to become a global movement. Speak second Games, France had joined the party. In the fourth, 10 countries sent athletes. Since then the events have grown exponentially and today athletes from over 170 countries come together to compete.
After nearly a decade of summer sports competition, Special Olympics has expanded into a new season. the winter game, which were first hosted in 1977 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, introduced a host of new sports to the program. Over 500 athletes came to compete and several major networks covered the events. Today, the Special Olympics Winter Games are held every four years.
Inspired by winter and summer Olympic events, Special Olympics offers everything from downhill skiing to triathlon. If you come to watch, you will see many typical Olympic events sportssuch as swimming, basketball, and figure skating, as well as some Special Olympics-specific activities, including bowling, cheering competitions, and snowshoeing.
From weightlifters to speed skaters, 5.6 million people participate in Special Olympics programs through training events and competitions held throughout the year. Anyone over the age of 8 with an intellectual disability is eligible to compete, and a full third of athletes are 22 or older.
Harvard Law teachers to famous athletes, Special Olympics has an impressive array of dedicated advocates. The most successful American figure skater of all time, michelle kwan acts as treasurer of the organization, and Loretta Claiborne is vice-president. As a former Special Olympics athlete herself, Claiborne has run marathons, speaks four languages, has a black belt in karate and travels the world as a motivational speaker.
The first Winter Games held outside the United States were held in Salzburg and Schladming, Austria in 1993 [PDF]while the first overseas Summer Games were held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003. Since then, host nations included China, Japan, Greece, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
In June 2023, the summer games will begin in Berlin and will mark the first time that Germany will host the Special Olympics World Games. The event will feature 26 sports over nine days, as well as an opening and closing ceremony. Seven thousand athletes are expected to compete.
But world events are only part of the Special Olympics events held each year. On June 5, 2022, Orlando, Florida will host the US Games, where athletes from across the country will compete in the events such as golf, softball, surfing, etc. Then in July, Detroit, Michigan, will host the Special Olympics Unified Cupa football tournament featuring athletes from 31 nations.
For decades, Special Olympics has enjoyed the support of professional athletes who recognize the importance of creating more inclusive competitive spaces. From the 1970s, Mohamed Ali supported the cause, and even open the 2003 ceremonies in Dublin, Ireland. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also lit the torch. today’s athlete ambassadors include Olympic champions like Michael Phelps, NBA All-Stars like Damian Lillard and many more.
What started as a summer camp has expanded far beyond a place where kids can play games. Today, the organization offers year-round support and advocates for better access to social services and health care for people with intellectual disabilities. Since 1997, Special Olympics athletes have had access to free healthcare projections at events with the aim of correcting the gap in access to health care between people with intellectual disabilities and the rest of the population. Representatives also make a annual visit on Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and advocate for the needs of Americans with developmental disabilities.
CEO of Special Olympics, Mary Davis sum best in a 2020 interview: “It’s about inclusion, communities getting to know our athletes and what inclusion, acceptance and respect for all means.”