For over 50 years the Special Olympics has provided training and competitive events to people with intellectual and physical disabilities. As the world’s largest sports organization dedicated to those with disabilities, it has grown from 1,000 athletes in its inaugural year in 1968 to more than five million today.
The Special Olympics is so much more than an athletic competition. The organization provides health screenings and year-round opportunities for people to participate in physical activity. Participants benefit in many ways and experience improved mental well-being, independence, and a better quality of life. Read on to learn about the history of the Special Olympics and some of its extraordinary athletes, accomplishments, and most amazing moments over the past five decades.
There Are Over 30 Sports Included
There are over 30 Olympic-style individual and team sports in the Special Olympics. Just like athletes who are in the traditional winter and summer Olympics, Special Olympics participants train year-round.
From alpine skiing to basketball, cycling to judo, sailing to powerlifting and more, there are a variety of opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate in meaningful competition. The opportunities and global reach continue to grow each year. Millions of athletes participate in these programs in over 170 countries around the world.
Millions of Free Health Screenings and Counting
Since 1997, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program has delivered over two million free health screenings and trained more than 260,000 health professionals to treat individuals with intellectual disabilities. Key specialty health areas include vision, podiatry, audiology, overall health, sports physical examinations, dentistry, physical therapy and emotional well-being.
With the Special Olympics’ inclusive Healthy Athletes program, people with intellectual disabilities are able to take full advantage of the same quality health programs and services available to people who do not have intellectual disabilities.
A Moving Oath
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This is the official oath introduced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the inaugural Special Olympics International Games in Chicago in 1968. These powerful words emphasize the importance of effort and trying for one’s personal best.
Kennedy Shriver actually came up with this oath right before the opening ceremony of the first Special Olympics International Games. It has served as the official motto for the organization ever since.
Athletes Start Young
Athletes can start participating as early as age two! The Special Olympics Young Athlete program was created for children with intellectual disabilities ages two through seven. Judd Tennant, pictured here participating in an equestrian event, is five years old and has cerebral palsy.
To be eligible to participate in Special Olympics, you must be “eight years old and identified by an agency or professional as having one of the following conditions: intellectual disabilities, cognitive delays as measured by formal assessment, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delay that require or have required specifically designed instruction.”
The Meaning Behind the Logo
The Special Olympics logo depicts five figures in a unifying circle that symbolizes the organization’s global presence. It is based on a sculpture by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli called “Joy and Happiness to All the Children of the World”. The sculpture is on display at the State University of New York’s College at Brockport.
Tsereteli created the sculpture in honor of the Fifth International Summer Special Olympic Games in 1979 which was hosted by SUNY Brockport. His design has served as the official Special Olympics logo ever since.
The Special Olympics had humble beginnings and started as a summer camp in 1960. Eunice Kennedy Shriver decided to start a place for children with intellectual disabilities who otherwise would not be accepted into mainstream summer camps.
Shriver recruited high school and college students to act as counselors. As the camp continued and flourished on her farm in Maryland, people from the community and representatives of the parks department and public-school system came out to watch. The rest is history!
The First International Special Olympic Games
The very first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in 1968 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada competed in track and field, floor hockey, and swimming. Swimming included 25-meter races, and track had short distance running, ball throws, and standing long jump. The event’s goal was to showcase everyone’s abilities, not their disabilities.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver penned the famous oath of the Special Olympics organization during the opening ceremony, “Let me win. But if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
50 Years Strong
The Special Olympics celebrated its milestone 50th-anniversary in 2018. The celebration took place where it all started, in Chicago, with a week of high-level sports competition at the Unified Cup, a Torch Run and Global Day of Inclusion festival, and a star-studded concert at Northerly Island organized by Chance the Rapper. Chance the Rapper, Usher, Jason Mraz, and Smokey Robinson were among the performers.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. even opened a display showcasing the five decades of the Special Olympics’ history.
Kester Edwards, athlete and Manager of Sport and Development at Special Olympics in Washington, D.C., started an initiative to donate 7,000 pairs of shoes to Special Olympics athletes at the 2019 Abu Dhabi World Games.
Kester recruited Olympic long-jump record holder and Special Olympics Global Ambassador Bob Beamon as well as shoe brand Pierce Footwear to donate special lace-less sneakers to participants. Kester explained: “During a past World Games, when I saw some teams from Africa that had teammates sharing the same shoes, I thought ‘I have to change this.’ It is about more than comfort. It is about health.”
Impact Beyond the Games
According to the Special Olympics fact sheet, individuals who compete in the program are shown to develop improved physical fitness and motor skills in addition to greater self-confidence.
The games and programs throughout the year offered by the Special Olympics are invaluable to the intellectually disabled community. Special Olympic athletes build courage, enthusiasm and make lasting significant friendships. These core life skills enhance their ability to lead normal productive lives. Many Special Olympians hold steady jobs, own their own homes, get a solid education and successfully confront challenges they may face throughout their lives.
Special Olympics competitions are set apart from traditional sports organizations by using a process called divisioning. In this process, Special Olympics’ athletes are grouped into separate organized divisions according to age, gender, and level of ability.
To ensure all participants enjoy a truly competitive experience, competitions are structured so that individuals compete with other athletes of similar ability in fair divisions. Every single athlete in each division is recognized for his or her performance and is encouraged to achieve their personal best.
Did you know more than 85% of Special Olympics athletes live outside of North America? The majority, (1,595,450 athletes recorded in 2016) are in Asia Pacific. What started in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard in Maryland has grown exponentially over the past 50 years!
The first International Special Olympic Games sparked a worldwide long-lasting legacy. What started with 1,000 participants at the inaugural games in the sixties has grown to a staggering 4.9 million athletes across 172 countries today.
Unified Champion Schools
At the 2019 World Games hosted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the World Games Higher Committee and Local Organizing Committee announced at the closing ceremony that all schools in the UAE will become Unified Champion Schools.
Transitioning to a Unified Champion School means students with and without intellectual disabilities will participate in sports and clubs together in an effort to foster inclusion for all. The Special Olympics’ mission of inclusion endures across the world by its implementing actions and specific programs like these each year.
A Very Special Christmas
The biggest names in music have contributed to the “A Very Special Christmas” album series produced by Jimmy Iovine since 1987. It’s the most successful benefit recording in history! Artists like The Pretenders, Carrie Underwood, Madonna, and Run D.M.C. have contributed songs to the widely beneficial album series every holiday season.
Royalties from the songs go directly to the Special Olympics and help to spread the global presence of the movement. Album sales provide funding to new and emerging Special Olympics programs around the world.
Michael Phelps is one of the most accomplished athletes of all time and a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics. Phelps got involved with the Special Olympics as an Ambassador of 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai, China. The 2007 games included a number of swim clinics with athletes from the Special Olympics China program.
Phelps’ foundation plays a major role in the Special Olympics as well. His foundation’s signature program, “im,” is the Special Olympics’ Official Swimming Program. He also introduced a program for a swimmer’s first introduction to the water in 2012 called “Young Athletes im”.
The Proof Is In The Numbers
Special Olympics programs do more than just improving physical ability. In a study conducted by Special Olympic researchers titled “The Universal Impact of Special Olympics: Challenging the Barriers for People with Intellectual Disability,” it was found that in addition to improvements in general sports skills, nearly all Special Olympics athletes (more than 90%) from all countries studied experience improved self-esteem and self-confidence.
Thanks to the opportunities provided by Special Olympics programs, family members and coaches have reported vast improvement in both social skills and athletic ability, proving mental health benefits from such programs just as much as physical health.
What’s In A Name?
When it comes to the Olympic brand, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) runs a pretty tight ship. They don’t allow just anybody the honor of using the Olympic name in an official capacity. The Special Olympics is the only organization in the United States legally authorized to use the name “Olympics” by the USOC.
They mean business. Federal law gives the USOC extensive rights to control the use of USOC intellectual property in the United States and allows the committee to file a lawsuit against any entity using such intellectual property for commercial purposes without prior approval.
Summer And Winter
Just like the original Olympic Games, the Special Olympics hold athletic events for the summer and winter season. The first Special Olympics Winter Games were held in 1977 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Winter sporting events include alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, floorball, floor hockey, figure skating, snowboarding, speed skating, snowshoeing and stick shooting.
The next World Winter Games will be held in Sweden between February 2 to 13, 2021. This will be the first time that Sweden has hosted the Special Olympics.
About 1 percent of the world’s population has an intellectual disability. Participants in the Special Olympics include a wide range of ages, genders, and nationalities that continue to grow in numbers each year.
Approximately 67 percent of Special Olympics athletes are of school age (8-21) and over 31 percent are adults (22+). Female athletes account for approximately 38 percent of the total athlete population. The majority of athletes hail from the Asia Pacific region (1,595,450 athletes in 2016). 38 percent of people with intellectual disabilities in North America currently participate or have participated in and benefitted from Special Olympics at some point in their lives.
The Special Olympics is so much more than the one big athletic event held every couple of years. Communities of families have expanded their involvement in Special Olympics by coming together and organizing a Family Support Network available 365 days a year.
Special Olympics has established over 100 Family Support Networks globally to provide a welcome resource, develop community partner relationships and register thousands of new family members for local programs. It’s an invaluable tool for new and existing families who participate in Special Olympics programs throughout the year.