A Revolution Begins
It all began in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. At this time, individuals with intellectual disabilities were routinely shut away in institutions. She decided to take action. She held a summer day camp for these young people in her own backyard. The goal was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities – and not dwell on what they could not do. This revolutionary idea would spark a global movement.
The 60s - The First Games
On July 20, 1968, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago. About 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from the USA and Canada competed. The Opening Ceremony included a teen runner carrying a torch to light a 45-foot high "John F. Kennedy Flame of Hope." Over 200 events were offered, including broad jump, softball throw, 25-yard swim, 100-yard swim, high jump, 50-yard dash, water polo and floor hockey. The event was so successful that Eunice Kennedy Shriver soon pledged that more games would be held in 1970 and every two years thereafter.
An idea that started in the USA begins to spread across the globe. Stigma facing people with intellectual disabilities is slowly being replaced with respect and admiration -- on the playing fields and off. After just a decade, Special Olympics International Summer Games are attracting thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the world.
By the mid-1980s, Special Olympics programs have spread to more than 50 countries on every major continent. In 1983, an estimated 4,000 athletes attended the 1983 International Special Olympics Summer Games in Louisiana, USA. In July ’88, The Special OlympicsUnified Sports initiative is launched at Special Olympics conferences in Reno, Nevada, and Lake Tahoe, California. Unified Sports brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same teams. Bowling, volleyball and softball are the first sports to be included.
By the 1990s, Special Olympics is attracting global attention, thanks to enthusiastic support from media and high-profile fans from around the world. For example, the joyous 1991 World Summer Games became the focus of a two-hour ABC-TV broadcast, "Victory and Valor." One of many highpoints at the star-studded Opening Ceremony before 60,000 fans: a rare live performance from multi-Grammy Award Winner Prince.
In January 1997 Healthy Athletes becomes an official Special Olympics initiative, providing health-care services to Special Olympics athletes worldwide. The program includes free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education. The Healthy Athletes program has provided more than 1.7 million free health examinations in more than 130 countries since its creation in 1997.
The fourth decade is all about growth - exponential growth around the world. Millions of athletes are taking part in thousands of competitions every year. Also, the Special Olympics Unified Champions Schools program is created. This is a comprehensive model implemented in the USA that combines Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement to create school and community climates of acceptance and inclusion.
Special Olympics has nearly 5 million athletes in over 170 countries. Special Olympics South Carolina has over 26,000 athletes and offeres 26 different sports ranging from skiing and sailing to basketball, bocce and bowling.
"I love Special Olympics. It's great when you can put your whole heart and soul into something and go for the gold. Winning isn't what matters, it's trying your best, but I do LOVE winning!" SOSC Athlete Stevie Betros
"Through Special Olympics, I've learned that my daughter is more normal than any doctor ever lead me to believe. I've see her make friends and develop self-esteem and self-confidence. She has the opportunity to do things that would otherwise be out of reach, and I have the chance to bond with other parents." Patty Johnson, Parent of SOSC Athlete Melissa Johnson