The name of my Sports(wo)man of the Year does not appear regularly, or even sporadically, on this web site, in the magazine or in any other sports publication. In fact, the movement she started four decades ago regularly causes consternation in the nation's sports departments. How do we cover it? Is it sports? What do we say about it?
Legit questions all. But in 1968, Special Olympics was born and -- no matter what else it might be -- it is a sports movement that not only endures, but also flourishes in a world obsessed with deifying elite athletes. And so I choose 85-year-old
There is a place for celebrated athletes in Special Olympics: in the background along with thousands of other volunteers. Athletes and celebrities of all stripes can lend their names, their time and their money -- hundreds and hundreds of them have over the years -- but Special Olympics remain about the competitors.
I was at the Special Olympics World Games in Buffalo a number of years ago when a famous athlete was introduced. He raised both hands to acknowledge the roar, then sheepishly put them down when he realized the crowd was actually cheering the start of the 100-yard dash. That it took the winner about 25 seconds to finish was irrelevant.
Two years removed from a small stroke, and still battling health problems -- Ms. Shriver, 86, was recently admitted to a Boston-area hospital with an undisclosed illness -- the fifth of nine children in America's enduring First Family remains the Rushmore-ic face of Special Olympics, which serves about 2.5 million boys, girls, men and women in 165 countries. Soccer may be the world's sport, and basketball may sell more jerseys, but Special Olympics is just as global.
There are 500,000 Special Olympic athletes in China and 210,000 in India, plus an astonishing 4,400 in Rwanda. There is simply no telling how many intellectually-challenged children in the United States -- never mind the Third World or kids who were born under repressive regimes -- would have been tossed onto life's scrap heap without a reason to run and jump and sweat and ski and pass some inner gut check. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions.
Special Olympics is a sports movement utterly without cynicism. Even
The executive director of Pennsylvania Special Olympics,
I met Ms. Shriver once, three decades ago, when she presented me with an award for a Special Olympics story I had written for a newspaper. I listened as she told her breakfast guests how she grew up as a competitive athlete in a competitive family, always playing quarterback against her brothers
The best thing about Special Olympics is that, somehow, it has everything to do with the world of real sports and nothing at all.