By Jennifer Meyer
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
Special Olympics is an international organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition. Special Olympics offers more than 1.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities year-round training and competition in 26 Olympic-type summer and winter sports with no charge to participate (Shriver 2003).
"A person with an intellectual disability is one who, from childhood, develops at a below average rate…the person experiences unusual difficulty in learning and has difficulty in applying the skills needed for daily living" (Best Buddies). More than 7.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability (formally known as mental retardation) and more than 200 causes have been identified.
The Special Olympics is an unprecedented global movement that, through quality sports training and competition, improves the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and, in turn, the lives of everyone they touch (Shriver 2003). It allows these people to realize their full potential and develop skills to become fulfilled and productive members of their families and the communities in which they live. Participation
The largest sporting event in 2003 was the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland. The summer Games are held every four years. In 2003, more than 6,500 athletes from 158 countries participated in 18 competitive and 3 demonstration sports.
Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver created the Athlete Oath of the Special Olympics. She opened the first Special Olympics Games with these words that are still recited today before every activity: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt" (Special Olympics 2004, NP).
The concept of Special Olympics was begun in 1962 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver who started a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities at her home (Bueno 1994). She believed that people with intellectual disabilities were far more capable than commonly thought and deserved the same opportunities and experiences as others. Therefore, in June of 1962 she invited 35 boys and girls with intellectual disabilities to Camp Shriver at her home in Rockville, Maryland, to explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities (Ibid).
Through Shriver’s promotion of the concept, her activity, Camp Shriver, became an annual event. The Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation gave grants to universities, recreation departments and community centers (Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation). By 1968 more than 300 camps similar to Camp Shriver had started.
The global Special Olympics movement started on July 20, 1968 when the First International Special Olympics Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois (Special Olympics 2004). Anne Burke, a recreation teacher from the Chicago, IL Park District, attended a workshop given by Dr. William Freeberg on the benefits of recreation and the fact that everyone has talents and gifts to share with others. Burke proposed holding a citywide track meet in Chicago that modeled itself after the Olympics to raise awareness of the program (Ibid). She and Freeberg developed a proposal for the Kennedy Foundation that was instantly accepted. Shriver immediately saw the potential of the idea and asked Burke to expand its scope to include more sports and athletes from across the United States.
The Kennedy Foundation underwrote the event held on July 20, 1968 (Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation). One thousand athletes with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada competed in athletics, floor hockey and aquatics. This was the day Shriver announced the now familiar name of the new national program, the Special Olympics, that would offer people with intellectual disabilities "the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow" (Special Olympics 2004, NP).
The Special Olympics is a grass-roots movement that provides opportunities for a usually ignored group of people and the rest of society. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said to Shriver, "You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this" on the day of the first International Special Olympic Games (Ibid, NP). This has been true for the disabled, their families, their peers and the rest of society. The families of Special Olympics athletes are encouraged to play an active role in their community program, to share in the training of athletes and to assist in the public education effort needed to create greater understanding of the emotional, physical, social and spiritual needs of people with intellectual disabilities and their families (Zulewski 1994).
Special Olympics activities take place in public, with full coverage by the media, so that athletes with intellectual disabilities may reveal to the world those special qualities of the human spirit in which they excel—skill, courage, sharing and joy (Harmer 1992). The program aspired to change the negative attitudes and misperceptions about people with intellectual disabilities, replacing stigma and rejection with an emphasis on potential, ability, and acceptance (Ibid).
CEO Timothy Shriver says the Special Olympics will serve as the method for a lasting change in the public’s attitudes toward the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in every aspect of society in every country on the planet (Shriver 2003).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
There is no cost for children or adults to participate in the Special Olympics. Therefore, all program costs are covered by fundraising. Fundraising efforts include small local fundraisers, corporate sponsors and stock exchange options (Special Olympics 2004). The largest grass-roots fundraiser for Special Olympics is the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The "Flame of Hope" travels over 9,000 miles to the Special Olympics International Games Opening Ceremony, gathering $19.5 million dollars along the way (Ibid).
To the greatest extent possible, Special Olympics activities are run by and involve local volunteers, from school and college age to senior citizens, in order to create greater opportunities for public understanding of and participation with people with intellectual disabilities (Huettig 1983). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Special Olympics is a positive example of a grass-roots movement that has moved into a worldwide phenomenon. It combines the motivation of volunteers, fundraising and improving the lives of those less fortunate.
Key Related Ideas
The original reason for the creation of the Special Olympics was to provide recreational opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Up until this time, these people were placed in special schools or no school at all. They were not able to participate school athletics or leagues because it was felt they were unable to compete (Bueno 1994).
After success in the creation of the Special Olympics, a more important theme was introduced: inclusion for individuals with intellectual disabilities into society. This began with regular competition in the Special Olympics. Later, initiatives to inform the public of the importance of inclusion were added to the Movement. The Special Olympics Get Into It school-based curriculum gets word out to students that they have more in common with those with intellectual disabilities than they ever thought (Shriver 2003). In 2003, Multinational Study of Attitudes Toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities was published; a study that proved many long-held prejudices and misconceptions about those with disabilities still linger in the world’s eyes (Ibid).
Recently, the Special Olympics has added other programs for individuals with disabilities that foster healthy athletes and leadership initiatives. The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® program provides health screenings in conjunction with competition free of charge to athletes. The Athlete Leadership Programs help athletes demonstrate leadership skills and become effective self-advocates (Special Olympics 2004).
Important People Related to the Topic
- Anne Burke (1944 – ): Burke was a teacher in Chicago at the start of the Special Olympics movement. She proposed the initial idea of having a citywide track meet modeled after the Olympics to raise awareness of Camp Shriver. Founder Eunice Shriver saw the potential of her idea and formed it into an international movement. Her idea grew to be what is known today as the Special Olympics International Games.
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921 – ): Shriver is a leader in the worldwide struggle to improve and enhance the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities for more than three decades. She is the sister of late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She had a long-standing commitment to people with intellectual disabilities. She was instrumental in focusing the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation on improving the way society deals with its citizens with intellectual disabilities, and helping identify and disseminate ways to prevent the causes of intellectual disabilities (Ibid). She began a summer day camp in her backyard that grew into the modern day Special Olympics. It influences over 1.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in more than 150 countries around the world today.
- Sargent Shriver (1915 – ): He gave 35 years of his life to the Special Olympics alongside his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He served as the organizer and first Director of the Peace Corps and was a Vice Presidential candidate against Richard Nixon. He served as Chairman of the Board of the Special Olympics for 13 years (1990-2003) creating one of the largest amateur sporting organizations in the world. He is called the Special Olympics’ fearless leader, supporter and passionate friend (Shriver 2003).
- Timothy P. Shriver (1959 – ): He is the current Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics. He joined the Movement in 1996 and has since then launched the organization’s most ambitious growth agenda, setting a goal of 2 million athletes worldwide by 2005 (Ibid). He has also introduced many new programs that have added new dimensions to the Movement. These foster emotional health as well as physical, thus making the Special Olympics a well-rounded activity for participants.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- Best Buddies International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment. Founded by Anthony Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Shriver, the organization pairs middle school, high school, and college students, and corporate professionals with individuals with intellectual disabilities in a mutually rewarding friendship (www.bestbuddies.org). Best Buddies also helps people with intellectual disabilities connect with others through technology with its online friendship program, e-Buddies.
- Chris Burke, best known as “Corky” from the hit ABC-TV show Life Goes On was an active participant of the Special Olympics prior to his TV appearances. He was discovered after a track and field race when a TV camera recorded him celebrating his finish after the race. It was not until a live interview that the public discovered he was celebrating a third place finish, out of three participants. His enthusiasm led him to be the first individual with a disability on primetime television. After his acting career, he went on the road with a motivational speech and musical presentation with two lifelong friends, Joe and John DeMasi. They do presentations nationwide emphasizing how to “focus on your abilities, not your disabilities” (www.chrisburke.org).
- The Paralympics is an international nonprofit organization that involves athletes from six disability groups who compete in 25 different sports only on the elite sport level. These athletes have primarily physical disabilities. Different from the Special Olympics, athletes who do not meet qualifying standards may not compete and others who are competing may lose in preliminary play (www.paralympic.org).
- The Unified Sports Initiative is a program that combines approximately equal numbers of Special Olympics athletes and athletes without intellectual disabilities (called Partners) on sports teams for training and competition. Age and ability matching of athletes and Partners is defined on a sport-by-sport basis; the initiative includes virtually all Special Olympics sports. The concept of Unified Sports is to provide another level of challenge for higher ability athletes and Partners to promote equality and inclusion (http://www.specialolympics.org/Special+Olympics+
Related Web Sites
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), at (www.olympic.org) is the umbrella organization of the Olympic movement. The IOC officially recognized Special Olympics as a representative of interests of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is the only organization authorized by the IOC to use the word “Olympics” worldwide.
The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation (www.jpkf.org) is a private foundation that shares Special Olympics’ goal of providing people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. It was established in 1946 by Eunice Shriver’s mother and father. The Foundation provided critical funding necessary for the establishment of Special Olympics. It no longer provides funding but it continues to provide technical assistance, guidance and professional consultation and other forms of support and assistance in expanding the Movement.
The National Association for Retarded Citizens (www.thearc.org) was established in 1950 with the function to advocate for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The program provides education, recreation, counseling for parents, day care, camps and home training programs. The organization is nationally respected after their role in the formation and passage of the Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Act.
Special Olympics is a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) of the United Nations (www.un.org). As an NGO, Special Olympics has the responsibility of working with nations throughout the world to help develop sports training and competition programs for persons with intellectual disabilities.
Bibliographic and Internet Sources
Best Buddies International. Accessed 21 October 2004.
Bueno, Ana. Special Olympics: The First 25 years. San Francisco: Foghorn Press; Emeryville, CA. 1994. ISBN: 0-935701-85-0.
DePauw, Karen P., Gavron, Susan J. Disability and Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1995. ISBN: 0-87322-848-0.
GuideStar, "Special Olympics, Inc." GuideStar: The National Database of Nonprofit Organizations 2004. Accessed 20 October 2004. http://www.guidestar.org.
Harmer, Peter Anthony Paul. Paternalism and Special Olympics. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1992.
Huettig, Carol Irene. Motives of Special Olympic Volunteers. Ann Arbor: Texas Woman’s University, 1983.
Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation. Accessed 21 October 2004. http://www.jpkf.org
Luttrell, Lynn. The Self-Concept and Perceived Importance of Athletic Competition of Winners and Losers in Special Olympics. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1991.
Shriver, Timothy. Special Olympics 2003 Annual Report. Accessed 27 September 2004. http://www.specialolympics.org/Special+
Special Olympics. "From Backyard Camp to Global Movement: The Beginnings of Special Olympics." Accessed 27 September 2004. http://www.specialolympics.org/About_Us/History/default.htm.
Zulewski, Richard. The Parent’s Guide to Coaching Physically Challenged Children. Cincinnati: Better Way Books, 1994. ISBN: 1-55870-347-0.
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