Inside the Growth and Evolution of the Special Olympics World Games


July 20, 1968, was a glimmer of hope in what was one of the most volatile years in the history of the United States. The country was in turmoil. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was facing her own personal tragedy, as her brother, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated that June.

Yet, she decided to move forward with her plans to use sports to open the hearts and minds of people to those with intellectual disabilities, because she believed everyone deserved to be the best they could be.

For a short window of time at Soldier Field in Chicago, at the first International Special Olympic Games, as it was called, smiles, tears and inspiration flowed.

“The world will never be the same after this," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley told Mrs. Shriver.

And he was right.

During those first Games, nearly 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities represented 26 states and Canada in three sports: track and field, swimming and floor hockey. A handful of volunteers pitched in, and fewer than 100 spectators were in the stands.

Now, 47 years later, with the 2015 Special Olympics World Games kicking off last weekend in Los Angeles, the numbers look like this: More than 6,000 athletes and 2,500 coaches representing 165 countries, along with 25,000 volunteers and an anticipated 500,000 spectators. The athletes are participating in 25 sports, from beach volleyball and equestrian to kayaking and powerlifting.

Minor Miracles Along the Way

No one could have predicted the growth of the Games. Certainly not Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist and 1956 Olympic Silver Medalist, both in the Decathlon, and founder of Special Olympics in Southern California, who was there in the beginning and has seen the “minor miracles" as he calls them every step of the way.

“I don't know if I thought about how long it would take, however I saw things happen on a regular basis that showed we were taking giant steps," Johnson said. “When I went to the institutions with Mrs. Shriver, I saw quiet activity. They were in their rooms mostly, sitting in the corner, not connecting with others. I was so impressed with what I saw (at the first Games). The athletes were happy.

“I met a young lady (at one of the institutions in Connecticut) and knew she was going to the Games…she was blind, as well," he continued. “What happened gave me a jolt. We were at a dinner in Chicago, and a choral group (with people with intellectual disabilities) came out to sing. The music was out of this world. I was touched by the music. I closed my eyes and the voices could have come from any singers, anywhere. Then, this young lady I met sang a solo. Her voice was spectacularly beautiful. I was thrilled to know where she came from to get to this moment. With a beautifully taken step like this you figure you are on the right path."

Johnson has countless stories and memories associated with Special Olympics. For example, he was in Arizona once to present medals for track and field. As one of the winners was walking back on the track, she looked at the people cheering from the stands.

"She waved at them and said 'Look Mum and Dad, I won,'" Johnson recalls. "They all wept. I asked her to introduce me to her family. Every time she said their names, the family burst into tears. I asked her mother why they were crying and she told me these were the first words her daughter had ever uttered and then she introduced each person by name."

Game Changers

While July 20, 1968, remains as the single most important date for Special Olympics, there have been numerous milestones that have affected its growth. TV was a game changer. In 1983, Roone Arledge, who was president of ABC Sports, broadcast the Games in Baton Rouge, on Wide World of Sports. He won the time slot and an Emmy. It wasn't until 1987 that two hours of prime time programming was slated for the Opening Ceremony in South Bend, Indiana.

“He (Arledge) was a great leader and saw the power and beauty of Special Olympics," said Peter Wheeler, chief of strategic properties at Special Olympics. “We knew when people come to the games, they see it. It's life changing for a lot of spectators, not just the athletes and their families. We needed someone to believe, to help push it to a broader audience."

Next up was the Host Town Program, which took off in 1995.

“It was a simple idea for us," said Wheeler. “It allowed the athletes to live in the community for three days, get to know the people and have the communities get to know them."

It continues today. "We will have 85 communities hosting all nations in L.A," Wheeler added. "It helps change the perception of people with intellectual disabilities. Culturally it is extremely powerful."

Through the Healthy Athletes program, also introduced in 1995, Special Olympics serves as the largest global public health organisation dedicated to people with intellectual disabilities. The program has changed athletes' lives via free health care services and resources ranging from information on eating the right foods to getting the right size shoes.

Special Olympics Unified Sports is another program that kicked off officially in 1991. Approximately 20 percent of Special Olympics athletes participate, helping to use sports to promote inclusion at a higher level. Athletes with and without intellectual disabilities train and represent their countries together. Instead of seeing three players with intellectual disabilities and two without competing, you see one team participating together. In 1991, two sports were unified, today there are 16.

“The last few years, we've seen great growth," said Wheeler. “It helps us in schools promoting the message of inclusion. All kids play together has taken off in other countries, as well… universities in China, prep/private schools in Africa, etc. It is the perfect solution to continue to grow our program and bring in others. Now, our mantra has changed from “let's help those with intellectual disabilities' to 'Let's go play with those with intellectual disabilities'…let's do it together. It's not about them, it's about us."

Going Global

In 2003, the Games were held in Ireland. With 5,500 athletes participating it was the largest sporting event of the year. China was up in 2007, a year before they hosted the Summer Olympic Games. They grew the number of Chinese athletes participating from 50,000 in 2000 to 500,000 in 2007 and volunteerism exploded in China.

Special Olympics has grown from a handful of volunteers in 1968 to fully dedicated staffs today. Training and coaching has leaped to another level. Not only are the athletes making healthier food choices supported by the Healthy Athletes program, training is more sophisticated, helping them get stronger and perform better.

“We're not keeping our special athletes in a group by themselves, we're educating our young people, companies are looking to hire Special Olympics athletes… all of this didn't happen before," said Johnson. “There is a lot we can do with Special Olympics leading the way. L.A. will be the greatest games ever held."

From July 25 through August, 2, 2015, the world meets in L.A. ESPN will be covering the Games like the World Cup with shows previewing the Games, as well as day-to-day event coverage. More than 1,300 media will be covering the event—the most ever. In addition, more than 30 sports ministers from around the world (including Brazil, Japan, Costa Rica, and Panama) will be in attendance to learn and take back the information to grow their programs.

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