On Its 50th Anniversary, How Special Olympics Has Ignited A Revolution For Inclusion And Unity
In the summer of 1968–wedged between the Vietnam War, urban violence, race riots, and political assassinations–the Special Olympics movement was born in Chicago on July 20. Over fifty years later, its message and power is needed now more urgently than ever.
In 1968, only about 1000 athletes with intellectual disabilities came to Soldier Field to compete in the first such “special” event. The stands were empty. Television cameras were missing.
Amidst the headlines of the time, almost no one seemed to notice that my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was spearheading something extraordinary. It seemed so unimportant. It was just a sports event for people who were mostly hidden, a chance for “those unfortunate kids” to have a fun day of play. “Nice activity,” people surely thought. But not “urgent” or “relevant” or “powerful.” The real issues of the time were elsewhere, most concluded.
But despite the indifference, the Special Olympics movement came to life in an explosion of healing and hope. It was a like a supernova, a dazzling display of the energy of love as athletes ran and jumped and swam and revealed smiles the world had never before seen. They showed off talents society had always doubted. And more than anything, they created a kind of joy that almost everyone there reported as being stunning. Children whom the world labelled “hopeless” defined a new hope. Achievements that the world thought were impossible created a new possible. Lives we thought were shameful destroyed shame.
Rising as it were, from the arms and legs, the smiles and dreams of the forgotten came a new world-view, a world of human first. A world where we can indeed cross every boundary that divides us. In that world, politics, gender, race, religion, ability—none of them matter. It was a moment of unity that was brought to life by the brave play of a few hundred people with intellectual challenges who refused to be diminished or humiliated and instead, beamed with pride. It was destined to bring joy and healing to the hearts of millions.
On the surface, the first Special Olympics games in 1968 was just an event. But in retrospect we can see that in fact, it was a massive heart-opening revelation of wholeness. A tap was opened and the energy flowed outward: first, it was a trickle, then a stream, now a river.
Very quickly after those first games, smaller games sprung up in communities around the country. Over the decades, 170 countries joined the movement. Almost 6 million athletes and partners now make up the movement. The world’s greatest celebrities come to cheer. Parents beam with pride. Volunteers weep and laugh with joy. In small villages, children come out of the closets of shame to shine with victory. The heart root of their celebrations is easy to spot: a world free of judgment. IQ doesn’t matter. Net worth doesn’t matter. Color, sex, disability; none of them matter. What we think is unreachable, isn’t. Unity is possible. It requires only one thing: seeing one another, face to face, heart to heart. It’s about seeing the lovable, valuable, formidable you. It’s about ending shame by revealing the lie that we are separate and superior to one another. We are able. All of us. Beautiful, possible, capable, able.
As we celebrate the end of the 50th anniversary year of Special Olympics, I think of my mother’s vision with awe and gratitude. She was a fighter, but as much as she fought, her mission was to spread love. She was a visionary, but as much as she saw big ideals, her mission was to teach the simple skills of sports and play. She was a woman who demanded a voice, but as much as she worked for change, her mission was to show that everyone matters. She believed in including the most vulnerable people on earth so that we might all create a world where all our vulnerabilities and gifts might be equally welcomed and celebrated.
But her work has really just begun. Today, we see a world hungry, more hungry than ever, for the message of our athletes. Most people think of Special Olympics as a charity for people with intellectual disabilities, and in some ways, it is. But it is also a movement from them where their unique lessons of inclusion and joy and health are being taught by them. We believe the most dangerous weapon on earth is attitudes of mass destruction, the attitudes that other people are so different from my group that they must be excluded or worse, destroyed. And we think our athletes are teachers who reveal how to defeat those attitudes: with encounter, with dignity for all, with bravery in the face of humiliation, with love. That’s the only way. And they’re the best teachers of it.
So why not every early childhood center on earth include children with intellectual differences and boast a Special Olympics Young Athletes program to teach inclusive play to the youngest of children? And why not every school on earth with a Special Olympics Unified Sports program where children with and without intellectual differences play together and represent the best in their schools? And why not a revolution in health care so that every child and adult with intellectual differences gets the same health care as everyone else? And why not a shift in our vision of leadership to include those who lead with humility, with gentleness, with a vision of wholeness?
These are our calls to action for the decades ahead. In each of them, I can hear my mother’s voice. She would often say that the injustice around us was “outrageous.” She’s still right. She would often say that volunteers are the people who make the biggest difference. She’s still right. She would often say that if we want to make change, we have to work harder than anyone else. She’s still right. And towards the end of her life, she would often tear up as she imagined a world where her “special friends” would no longer be hurt so much by the world around them. She’s still reminding us to feel the pain deeply so we can heal it urgently and with love.
As our 50th anniversary comes to a close, we believe that this is our moment. The athletes of Special Olympics are leading a revolution of the heart, a revolution of inclusion. It is time to follow them.
The urgency cannot be overstated.The possibility of change is real. Our time to make it happen is now.
Timothy Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the world’s leading school reform organization in the field of social, emotional and academic learning.