WE RECOGNIZE heroes for what they do. Odds are overcome. A race is won. Physical gifts are needed, but then there is the heart and determination of a Michael Phelps, training every day for four years to push beyond exhaustion and win eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing. But what if the gifts are not so apparent?
The idea—so obvious now—that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED should honor Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her life's work with Special Olympics goes back to an Arthur Ashe Foundation dinner at the New York Hilton in 1998. The event was emceed by Sidney Poitier and featured Muhammad Ali, who paid tribute to Shriver, but the highlight was Loretta Claiborne's speech introducing the Special Olympics founder. The sophisticated crowd, in black tie and evening gowns, broke down as this young woman, labeled "mentally retarded" as a child, told her personal story and expressed her debt to Shriver. "We were all openly in tears," says senior editor Greg Kelly, who attended the dinner.
With the 40th anniversary of Special Olympics approaching, Kelly mentioned that speech to senior writer Jack McCallum, and how moved he had been, suggesting they work on a story about Shriver and her crusade. Kelly did this without knowing that McCallum had begun a relationship with Special Olympics in the early 1970s when, as assistant sports editor of the Bethlehem, Pa., Globe-Times, he pushed for coverage of the local SO meets, either on the sports or the news pages. "It was a tough sell back then because it wasn't exactly sports as most people defined them," says McCallum. "But what you have to capture is the spirit of the event. If 500 people show up, 500 people feel the same thing. There is nothing quite like it."
McCallum went on to win the Special Olympics National Media Award in 1979 and to serve on the board of Pennsylvania Special Olympics in the early 1990s. To gather material for the package in the magazine this week (page 56), McCallum, reporter Elizabeth McGarr and photographer Lynn Johnson went to the Ohio State Summer Games in Columbus last June. "It was like I was instantly transported back in time," McCallum says. "The same goodwill, the same energy, the same outpouring of love ... there it was. I defy anyone to attend a Special Olympics meet and not look at the transformative power of sports in a fundamentally different way."
December 8, 2008
By the time McCallum filed the story, he and Kelly had agreed that for all those she had empowered over 40 years, SI should recognize Shriver with its Sportsman of the Year award in a new category—lifetime achievement. "We realized that this woman is a modern-day Jackie Robinson," says Kelly, "and SI had never adequately honored her. Like Jackie, she has used sports to change the world."
Eunice Kennedy Shriver is the inaugural recipient of SI's Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award for a life dedicated to the ideals of sportsmanship.