It is not hyperbole to say that in its 50 years of existence, Special Olympics has changed the world. This organization, which today involves 5.5 million participants from close to 200 countries, began just over a half century ago. And it all began with a sister’s love.
What grew into Special Olympics began as Camp Shriver, a special day camp program in Maryland, started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The sister of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Shriver felt a deep compassion for people born with intellectual disabilities because her sister, Rosemary, was one of those people.
Shriver saw firsthand how people with intellectual and physical disabilities were kept in the shadows and not given opportunities to fully engage in their communities. She believed that people with disabilities could be part of society and contribute, and she saw sports as a way open doors.
She launched Camp Shriver in 1962, and that would eventually grow into what we now know as Special Olympics at its inaugural games in Chicago in 1968. It was that event that helped to create the structure for what Special Olympics does today.
“In 1968, the Chicago Park District put out invitations to parks and recreation departments around the country to find individuals who might be interested in attending the first Special Olympics games in July of that year,” explains Keith L. Fishburne, president and CEO of Special Olympics North Carolina. “It happened that North Carolina had six athletes back then who were able to attend.”
Those inaugural games hosted about 1,000 athletes. When Special Olympics recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, North Carolina was even able to send one of its original participants back to celebrate.
“One of those original athletes, Mike Stone from Greensboro, is in his early sixties. When Special Olympics had its 50th anniversary celebration in Chicago over the summer, we took Mike as a guest,” Fishburne says. “He was actually able to say a few words at the reception, and he attended some of the festivities at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the first games were held. It was so good to have Mike there.”
LEVELS OF COMPETITION
Most think of Special Olympics as a once-every-four-years event, but in reality the organization is so much more and is hosting smaller local and regional events all the time. As an organization, Special Olympics International sits atop a structure of state and national Special Olympics chapters. Chapters maintain their accreditation with Special Olympics International and report to them.
In the U.S., individual states have their own Special Olympics programs, but internationally it is each country that has a chapter. So for example, there is Special Olympics North Carolina and also Special Olympics Mexico and Special Olympics Canada.
“In North Carolina we have roughly 40,000 registered athletes taking part at the grassroots level,” Fishburne explains. “There is an annual progression where they are training and competing in sports in their communities. Some advance to annual state level competitions.”
The state competitions, like the International Special Olympics Games, cover an array of sports in different events.
“We have an annual summer games, which features nine sports and an annual fall tournament that has another six sports,” Fishburne explains. “We have an alpine skiing event, an equestrian event, ice skating competitions and more. There is always something going on with Special Olympics North Carolina. Last year, with all the local and state invitationals, we hosted more than 400 events for our athletes.”
PHOTOS: courtesy of Special Olympics North Carolina