History Of The Special Olympics

Special Olympics grew out of changes in public attitudes in the 60's. Today 1.5 million developmentally disabled athletes from 160 countries take part in these activities.

"Let me win, But if I cannot win, Let me be brave in the attempt."

          "" oath of Special Olympics athletes.

Presently, more than 1.5 Million developmentally disabled athletes in 160 countries are involved in Special Olympics activities.

Less than fifty years ago, developmentally disabled persons often lived in a dark, cloistered, sometimes brutal, world of institutions, sheltered workshops, or family home back bedrooms; objects of sympathy, curiosity, fear.

With the Sixties came profound change in public attitudes. As if ideas have wings, Doctor Frank Hayden, a medical professor in Toronto, was discovering in his research that poor physical fitness among people with developmental disabilities had less to do with the disabilities and more to do with life circumstances imposed by the assumptions of authorities and the public. About the same time in the United States, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was seeing clearly beneficial value in enabling athletic opportunities for developmentally disabled children at a summer day camp with which she was involved. Dr. Hayden used formal research to prove his contention; Eunice Shriver used observation and practice.

By the late Sixties the work of the two people was compelling enough to bring the Kennedy Foundation on board as a major financial supporter. In July of 1968, the first International Special Olympic Games were held in fabled Soldier Field in Chicago. Track and field, aquatics, and floor hockey events were in the spotlight. So were 1,000 athletes from Canada and 26 American states. Since then, that spotlight has grown brighter.

Later that year, based on the summer success in Chicago, Special Olympics Inc. was formed in Washington, D.C. as a non-profit charitable organization. Basing its Mission on the expressed values of the Olympic tradition, and now supported by the U.S. National Association for Retarded Citizens, the American Association on Mental Deficiency, and the Council for Exceptional Children, the new organization began a nation-wide program in sports training and athletic competition.

In 1970, again in Chicago, the second Games got underway with double the number of athletes, including competitors from fifty states, Canada, France, and Puerto Rico. In 1972 the Games moved to Los Angeles, where 2500 athletes participated. In 1975, in Michigan, 3200 participants from ten countries were involved. CBS' Sports Spectacular was on hand to broadcast events.

As with the mainstream Olympic Games, the Special Olympics moved to a four-year cycle, interspersing winter Games into the schedule. The first Winter Special Olympic Games were held in 1977 in Colorado skiing country, featuring ice skating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing. All three major American television networks had camera crews present to provide coverage.

Success of the Games continues to swell around the world. In 1988 the International Olympic Committee signed an agreement officially recognizing Special Olympics. In 1990 the Soviet Union elected to join. Also in 1990, veteran Europeans held their third European Special Olympic Games, this time in Scotland. The Games attracted 2400 athletes from thirty countries. Then, in 1991, the largest sports event in the world that year, was the Special Olympics in Minneapolis.

The Hayden/Shriver theses were proven. However, more important than the Games themselves are three other factors. The Games are the high profile tip of the iceberg.

First of the factors is participation. Games participants, as with competitors in the mainstream International Olympics, are the cream of athletes, rising from formal training programs and amateur activities available without fees in all participant countries. Of 1.5 Million athletes, slightly more than 7,000 were chosen to represent 160 countries in the 1999 Games. No less an international sports figure than Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan acted as Honorary Chairperson.

Special Olympics programs are available to all persons with developmental disabilities from the age of eight years. During its short life, Special Olympics organizations have developed approaches which serve all levels of ability. The bedrock of the Special Olympics program - the training, the opportunity, the camaraderie of participation--are the true measure of overall success.

Second to the athletes in importance is the committed involvement each year of thousands of volunteers. For example, as early as 1987, 30,000 police officers from across the United States raised more than $2 Million for the Special Olympics. Add to that families and concerned people in the cities, towns, and hamlets throughout the world, none of whom are paid, all of whom are believers in the work. In the United States, volunteers are active in more than 25,000 communities. Among other activities, volunteers organize fund raisers, provide training, and arrange transportation and facilities. They number more than 600,00 worldwide and, of these, 250,000 act as coaches, trainers, and mentors.

The third factor is the increased public awareness and appreciation that "different" is not really so different after all. Difference, they have come to understand, can be dissolved by participation in challenging, common activities. The most recent Summer Special Olympic Games involved more than twenty events. Even though self-evident, the value of increased self-esteem and sense of belonging inspired by involvement is incalculable.

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