ON A STEAMY July20 morning in 1968 Eunice Kennedy Shriver stepped up to the microphone atSoldier Field in Chicago and convened the first Special Olympics Games. It wasonly seven weeks after her younger brother Robert had been gunned down in thekitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and about five weeks before theWindy City exploded in violent confrontations between police and protestors atthe Democratic National Convention.
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue
The assassinationand the violence in the streets profoundly altered the American politicallandscape ... and, in a much different way, so did the Games at SoldierField.
With a crowd offewer than 100 people dotting the 85,000-seat stadium, about 1,000 athletesfrom 26 states and Canada, all of them routinely classified in those days asmentally retarded, marched in the opening ceremonies and followed Shriver asshe recited what is still the Special Olympics oath:
Let me win,
but if I cannot win,
let me be brave
in the attempt.
Chicago mayorRichard Daley, who would become a polarizing figure at the convention thatAugust, attended the four-day event and told Shriver, "You know, Eunice,the world will never be the same after this."
While skepticsshook their heads and most of the press ignored the unprecedented competition,Shriver boldly predicted that one million of the world's intellectuallychallenged would someday compete athletically. She was wrong. Today, threemillion Special Olympics athletes are training year-round in all 50 states and181 countries. They run races, toss softballs, lift weights, ski moguls, volleytennis balls and pirouette on skates. There are World Winter Games, the nextones coming up in Boise, Idaho, in February, and World Summer Games, which willbe staged next in Athens in 2011. Documentaries, Wide World of Sportspresentations, after-school TV specials, feature films, cross-aislecongressional teamwork and relentlessly positive global word of mouth haveeducated the planet about Special Olympics and the capabilities of the sort ofindividuals who were once locked away in institutions. Schooling, medicaltreatment and athletic training have all changed for people with intellectualdisabilities as a result of Shriver's vision; more important, so have attitudesand laws.
Ireland rewroteits antidiscrimination statutes after the Special Olympics World Summer Gameswere held in Dublin in 2003. China once routinely warehoused its intellectuallychallenged, but at the '07 World Games in Shanghai a crowd of 80,000 cheered asa video on the stadium scoreboard showed the country's president, Hu Jintao,cavorting with a group of Special Olympics athletes. Three decades ago Russiaclaimed that it had no citizens with intellectual disabilities—it sent a teamof 190 to Shanghai.
In Egypt, SpecialOlympics athletes practice snowshoeing (a Winter Games event) on sand in frontof the pyramids, and in embattled Iraq and Afghanistan, people who were oncelocked in dark rooms now kick soccer balls in the light of day. The SpecialOlympics movement is built upon hundreds of big moments and thousands uponthousands of small ones. In St. Kitts a young boy with intellectual challengespicks up a grapefruit, tosses it toward a stone, and now he's a bocce player.In Turkey a father watches his daughter run a race and, through tears, tells aSpecial Olympics official, "I never even thought of my daughter as mydaughter before."
IT WAS a daughterwho started all this. Born into wealth and power, the middle child of nine inthis country's version of a royal family, Eunice Kennedy Shriver chose to lobbyfor the powerless. Yes, she used her connections from time to time. When Iowa'sTom Harkin was a freshman senator in 1984, he got a political favor fromMassachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and, sure enough, was visited shortlythereafter by Eunice, who asked for his support for Special Olympics funding.But she never twisted arms or peddled her influence to build her own powerbase. She used it to help those who were invisible or perceived to be anembarrassment by the population at large. And for her selfless work, on the40th anniversary of the birth of the movement she founded, SI honors her withits first Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.
The results ofher efforts speak for themselves, but her son Tim, now the organization'schairman, puts it all in some perspective. "If you look at her brothers andsisters and all that they accomplished," he says, "no one will standany higher than my mother."
The grand dame ofSpecial Olympics is 87 now, too frail and weak from a series of strokes to sitfor interviews or photos. Her husband, Sargent Shriver, himself once a tirelessadvocate for Special Olympics—"My father had the zeal of a convert once hegot over the fact that his wife was a little wacky," says Tim—suffers fromAlzheimer's disease at 93. But Eunice's spirit remains an essential part of theorganization. It will forever be a Kennedy-Shriver movement, even when aKennedy or a Shriver is not in a leadership position.
Tim, 49, doesn'tspecifically remember that weekend in Chicago when the Games began, but hevividly recalls summer mornings at Timberlawn, the family's home in Rockville,Md., when he'd look out of his bedroom window and see ponies and balloons andclowns and kids running and laughing on the huge expanse of lawn. That was CampShriver, which Eunice started in 1962 to give intellectually challenged boysand girls a place to have a good time. "My parents were more example peoplethan adage people," says Tim. "We were told to do a lot of things—getoff your rear end, don't watch television, don't be arrogant, don't waste yourtime—but the whole issue of being engaged in some kind of socially meaningfulwork came from seeing it and having fun with it. They were great at makingimportant things fun."
By that timeEunice was already firmly committed to improving the lives of theintellectually challenged, in no small part because her older sister, Rosemary,had "a mild form of mental retardation," in the parlance of the day.She was lobotomized in 1941 and afterward spent most of her life in aninstitution in Wisconsin. (She died in 2005.)
Eunice was a goodathlete (her favorite sports were swimming, sailing and, of course, touchfootball), and she was frustrated by the dearth of athletic opportunitiesafforded women in the 1930s and '40s. At the same time, she saw how much worseit was for the intellectually challenged in a society that rarely educatedcitizens with such conditions, much less thought about organizing them intoathletic competitions. So Eunice did what Kennedys do: She made some noise andmoved around the furniture.
"When I'vetalked to her about it, the word she comes to is anger," says Tim of thewellspring of his mother's activism. "She is really tough and ambitious andstrong-willed, but she also has this vulnerable and empathic side. Afterwatching the struggles of her sister and visiting institutions and seeing thisenormous amount of human suffering, and at the same time coming from a placewhere women didn't have equal opportunity in sports, she just couldn't take itanymore."
Eunice began byusing funds from the Kennedy Foundation (started by her father, Joseph, andmother, Rose) to create programs for the intellectually disabled. Then sheinstituted Camp Shriver and helped finance a dozen or so other such campsaround the country. One day in 1967 she listened to a plan from the Chicagoparks and recreation department to hold a track meet for the city's kids withintellectual disabilities—Anne Burke, then a teacher in the parks system, nowan Illinois Supreme Court judge, was the moving force behind the idea—andturned on the Kennedy magic, providing $25,000 in funding and insisting thatpeople from all over the country be involved. And with the Games in Chicago in'68, the movement was on.
Since then, itsemphasis has changed but always with the goal of improving people's lives. Inthe beginning the Games were based on the model of the modern Olympiad. Allowedto compete was any person, regardless of age, who had a below-averageintellectual functioning level (two years or more behind their peers) andsignificant limitations in the adaptive skill areas needed to live, work andplay in the community.
Now theorganization has become far more ambitious, using athletics to bring preventivemedicine to the intellectually challenged throughout the world. "Up until40 years ago most people with intellectual and developmental disabilitiesdidn't live long enough to have adult specialized care," says Matt Holder,a Louisville-based dentist whose practice is devoted exclusively to treatingsuch patients. "So many of them died young because we didn't take care ofthem." Obesity and periodontal disease, both of which can lead to fatalhealth problems, are rampant among people with intellectual disabilities, forexample. They used to go relatively unchecked for any number of reasons:indifference, communication barriers, a lack of training in the medicalcommunity. "Studies show that 81 percent of medical students will graduatewithout having any training in caring for a person with an intellectualdisability," says Holder, who is the executive director of the nonprofitAmerican Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry and the global medicaladviser for Special Olympics. "And the 19 percent who did had an average ofone hour."
Another medicalreality: About 40% to 50% of those born with Down syndrome have a cardiacdefect that, if not corrected, could lead to early death. Surgeries and othermedical advances have increased the average life span of someone with Downsyndrome from 19 to between 55 and 60 years old, Holder estimates.
"What SpecialOlympics is about now," says Tim Shriver, "is using an event to drivethe development of sport, fitness and health programs nationwide. It's a basicchange in the movement."
To an extent, ithas been a movement that sells itself. "When people meet individuals withintellectual disabilities," says Peter Wheeler, the chief communicationsofficer of Special Olympics, "it invariably makes people change the waythey think. We say our program is the best export ever developed. Take itanywhere in the world and it's accepted, no matter what your philosophy,religion or political background." There were watershed moments along theway, particularly the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Actin 1975 and later the Americans with Disabilities Act—with Harkin as chiefsponsor—which together greatly expanded the rights of the disabled. Theadoption of Special Olympics as a cause in the '70s by celebrities such asSusan Saint James and Rafer Johnson also helped.
But always it wasEunice, shoulder to the wheel, cajoling, lobbying, wheedling, quarterbacking,stirring it up. The 2007 Games in Shanghai were a remarkable success by anystandard, but a day or two after their completion Eunice was on the phone withher son. "China was a success," she told Tim, "but we have a lot ofwork to do in Bosnia."
And elsewhere.The intellectually disabled population is increasing at a pace proportional tothe world's population. More than 190 million people in the world have anintellectual disability, about 7.5 million in the U.S. They are bullied,sexually abused, ignored and unemployed at a far greater rate than thenonimpaired population.
But to say thatthe lot of people with intellectual disabilities has improved because ofSpecial Olympics would be a gross understatement. Shriver's movement didnothing less than release an entire population from a prison of ignorance andmisunderstanding. It did something else, too—create a cathartic covenantbetween competitor and fan that is unlike anything else in sport. You watch andwhat you see is nothing less than a transformation, the passage of someone whohas been labeled unfortunate, handicapped, disabled or challenged to somethingelse: athlete.
Eunice KennedyShriver knew this could happen. Forty years ago she could see it all. For that,SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recognizes her as one of those revolutionaries who sawopportunity where others saw barriers, someone who started a movement andchanged a world.
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HOW TO HELP
Go to SI.com/specialolympics if you'd like to donate to Special Olympics orvisit SI's past coverage of the movement.