Special Olympics

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For global sports competitions organized by Special Olympics, see Special Olympics World Games.
Special Olympics
Special Olympics logo.svg
Founded 1968
Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Origins Camp Shriver
Area served
Official language
and the host country's official language when necessary
Key people
Timothy Shriver (Chairman of the Board)
Janet Froetscher (Chief Executive Officer)
Stephen M. Carter (Lead Director & Vice Chair)
Bart Conner (Vice Chair)
Raymond J. Lane (Vice Chair)
Ossie Kilkenny (Treasurer)[1]
Website www.specialolympics.org

The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 4.4 million athletes in 170 countries. Special Olympics competitions are held every day, all around the world—including local, national and regional competitions, adding up to more than 70,000 events a year. Like the International Paralympic Committee, the Special Olympics organization is recognized by the International Olympic Committee; however, unlike the Paralympic Games, Special Olympics World Games are not held in conjunction with the Olympic Games, and regional Special Olympics committees are not closely modeled on national olympic committees.

These competitions include the Special Olympics World Games, which alternate between summer and winter games. Special Olympics World Games are held every two years. The most recent World Summer Games were the Special Olympics World Summer Games, held in Los Angeles, California (The largest event in LA since the 1984 Olympic Games), from July 25, 2015 to August 2, 2015 and for the first time were covered by ESPN.

The most recent Special Olympics World Winter Games were held in Pyeongchang, South Korea from January 29 to February 5, 2013.[2] At the same time, the first Special Olympics Global Development Summit was held on "Ending the Cycle of Poverty and Exclusion for People with Intellectual Disabilities," gathering government officials, activists and business leaders from around the world [3]

Graz and Schladming, Austria will host the next Special Olympics World Winter Games from March 14–25, 2017.[4]


In June 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a day camp for children with intellectual disabilities at her home in Potomac, Maryland.[5] She started this camp because she was concerned about children with intellectual disabilities having nowhere to play. Using Camp Shriver as an example, Eunice, who was head of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation and part of President John F. Kennedy's Panel on Mental Retardation, promoted the concept of involvement in physical activity and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. Camp Shriver became an annual event, and the Kennedy Foundation (of which Eunice was executive vice president) gave grants to universities, recreation departments and community centers to hold similar camps.

Meanwhile, the research of Dr. Frank Hayden, a Canadian physical education professor from London, Ontario, had shown that persons with intellectual disabilities can and should participate in physical exercise. Moreover, he believed that the benefits of such activity would be seen in all areas of the athletes’ lives. And so, with the help of a local school that offered space in its gym, the first organised sport program floor hockey for intellectually disabled individuals became available in the fall of 1968.[6]

But Dr. Hayden didn’t stop there as he truly believed that all persons with intellectual disabilities had the right to not only community sport programs but also to high quality coaching and advancing levels of competition. With no firm support from the Canadian or Ontario governments, he took his case to Washington, D.C, to the home of Rose Kennedy, who herself had a disabled daughter – Eunice's eldest sister, Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary had undergone a lobotomy, and the brain damage inflicted by the operation caused her to be permanently incapacitated.[7] It has often been said that Rosemary's disability was Eunice's inspiration to form Special Olympics (as the movement came to be called), but she told The New York Times in 1995 that that was not exactly the case. "The games should not focus on one individual, she said."[8]

With Rose's financial assistance and the powerful influence of the Kennedy clan, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago. About 1500 athletes from the U.S. and Canada took part in the one-day event, which was a joint venture by the Kennedy Foundation and the Chicago Park District.[9] Anne McGlone Burke, a physical education teacher with the Chicago Park District and recipient of a Kennedy Foundation grant,[10] began with the idea for a one-time Olympic-style athletic competition for people with special needs. Burke then approached her to fund the event. Eunice, in turn, encouraged her to expand on the idea and the JPK Jr. Foundation provided a grant of $25,000.[citation needed]

The advisory committee to the Chicago Special Olympics included Dr. William Freeberg, Southern Illinois University; Dr. Frank J. Hayden, Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation; Dr. Arthur Peavy; William McFetridge, Anne McGlone Burke and Stephen Kelly of the Chicago Park District; and Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was honorary chairman. At the July 1968 games, Shriver announced the formation of Special Olympics and that more games would be held every two years as a "Biennial International Special Olympics.".[9]

In 1971, The U.S. Olympic Committee gave the Special Olympics official approval to use the name “Olympics”.[5]

The first 1977 Special Olympics World Winter Games were held in February 1977 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, U.S.[5]

In 1988, the Special Olympics was officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).[5]

In 1997, Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics initiative, offering health information and screenings to Special Olympics athletes worldwide.[5][11] By 2010, the Healthy Athletes program had given free health screenings and treatment to more than 1 million people with intellectual disabilities.

The crowd at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games Opening Ceremonies in Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland.

In 2003 the first Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held outside of the United States took place in Dublin, Ireland. Approximately 7,000 athletes from 150 countries competed over 18 disciplines. The Dublin games were also the first to have their own opening and closing ceremonies broadcast live, performed by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Most significantly the 2003 games dramatically changed the perceptions and attitudes of society regarding the abilities and limitations of people with intellectual disabilities. The opening ceremony of the 2003 Games has been described by President McAleese as "a time when Ireland was at its superb best".[12]

On October 30, 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law the "Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act," Public Law 108-406. The bill authorized funding for its Healthy Athletes, Education, and Worldwide Expansion programs.[13] Co-sponsored by Representatives Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Harry Reid (D-NV), the bills were passed by unanimous consent in both chambers.

In July 2006, the first Special Olympics USA Games were held at Iowa State University. Teams from all 50 states and the District of Columbia participated.[14]

In 2008, Special Olympics and Best Buddies International launched the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign to encourage individuals to stop using the word "retard" in everyday speech.

In 2011, Senators Tom Harkin and Roy Blunt and Representatives Steny Hoyer and Peter King introduced the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Act to authorize federal funding for Special Olympics Programs and Best Buddies Programs.


The Special Olympics logo has gone through several changes in its lifetime. The "stick figure" is an abstract but humanistic form designed to convey the impression of movement and activity. The logo is a symbol of growth, confidence and joy among children and adults with disabilities who are learning coordination, mastering skills, participating in competitions and preparing themselves for richer, more productive lives. The spherical appearance of the logo is a representation of Special Olympics' global outreach.


Special Olympics programs are available for athletes free of charge. More than 4 million athletes are involved in Special Olympics sports training and competition in 180 countries.[15] The organization offers year-round training and competition in 32 Olympic-style summer and winter sports.[16]

People with intellectual disabilities are encouraged to join Special Olympics for the physical activity, which helps lower the rate of cardiovascular disease and obesity, among other health benefits. Also, they gain many emotional and psychological benefits, including self-confidence, social competence, building greater athletic skills and higher self-esteem.[17] The motivations for joining the Special Olympics vary from one individual to the next; yet, there are common themes among individuals and their families that encourage them to either participate or abstain from the Special Olympics.

Special Olympics competitions are open to athletes ages 8 and up. For young people with intellectual disabilities ages 2–7, Special Olympics has a Young Athletes program—a sport and play program with a focus on fun activities that are important to mental and physical growth.[18] Children engage in games and activities that develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Parents say their children in Young Athletes also develop better social skills. The confidence boost makes it easier for them to play and talk with other children on the playground and elsewhere .[18] A study by the Center for Social Development and Education (University of Massachusetts, Boston) found that the activities also had the effect of helping children with intellectual disabilities learn routines and approaches to learning, along with how to follow rules and directions.[19]

Families can also get involved with the Special Olympics experience. Family members support their athletes to the best of their ability, which may involve attending or volunteering at the events. By being involved they can boost their athlete's self-esteem and will be looked at as a constant source of encouragement.[20]

Volunteers and supporters are an integral part of Special Olympics—and millions of people around the world are committed to its programs. Some are sponsors or donors. Many others are coaches, event volunteers and fans.[21]

Coaches help the athletes be the best they can be regardless of ability—or disability. Special Olympics trains coaches through the Coaching Excellence program, which includes partnering with sports organizations. Special Olympics volunteers are introduced to lifetime friendships and great rewards.[21]

There are many events that families and volunteers can get involved with, but the biggest event is the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The Torch Run involves police chiefs, police officers, secret service, FBI agents, military police, sheriffs, state troopers, prison guards, and other law enforcement personnel. They all get together to raise awareness and funds for Special Olympics. Ahead of a Special Olympics competition, law enforcement officers carry the torch in intervals along a planned route covering most of the state or country to the site of the opening ceremonies of the chapter or Special Olympics World Summer or Winter Games. Then they pass the torch to a Special Olympics athlete and together they run up to the cauldron and light it, signifying the beginning of the games.

The Special Olympics athlete's oath, which was first introduced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the inaugural Special Olympics international games in Chicago in 1968,[22] is "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Sports offered[edit]

Special Olympics has more than 32 Olympic-type individual and team sports that provide meaningful training and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. A few are listed below:

The above list shows a few of the 32 sports that Special Olympics offers; there are several more recognized and demonstration sports, including Open Water Swimming, Kayaking, Floorball, Cricket, Netball and Beach Volleyball. Availability of sports can depend on location and season.

A key difference between Special Olympics competitions and those of other sports organizations is that athletes of all ability levels are encouraged to participate. Competitions are structured so that athletes compete with other athletes of similar ability in equitable divisions.[23] An athlete's ability is the primary factor in divisioning Special Olympics competitions. The ability of an athlete or team is determined by an entry score from a prior competition or the result of a seeding round or preliminary event at the competition itself. Other factors that are significant in establishing competitive divisions are age and sex.

At competitions, medals are awarded to the first, second and third-place winners in each event and ribbons are awarded to athletes who finish in fourth through eighth place.[24]

In the Young Athletes program, children ages 2–7 play simple sports and games. The focus is on fun activities that are important to mental and physical growth.

In 1968, track and field and swimming were the first two official sports offered by Special Olympics. As in the Olympics, events are introduced in training and then added to the competitive schedule, and from there the list of sports and events continued to grow.

Famous supporters[edit]

The Special Olympics movement has attracted the support of a number of international sportsmen and other celebrities, including Rafer Johnson, Avril Lavigne, Bono, Joe Jonas, Dikembe Mutombo, Derek Poundstone, Pádraig Harrington, Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, Yao Ming, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner, Vanessa Williams, Mary Alice Pearce DeVane, Colin Farrell[25] and Arnold Schwarzenegger.[26]

Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Quincy Jones took part in a 2003 Global Youth Summit at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland. U.S. President Bill Clinton took part in a Global Youth Summit during the 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Eloísa García Etchegoyhen who served for 20 years at the Organization of American States Inter-American Children's Institute (IIN) (1966-1986) as the head of the Special Education and Early Childhood Division,[27] brought the Special Olympics program to Uruguay.[28]

In 2011, Princess Charlene of Monaco, herself a former Olympian, was named as a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics. Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps was also named a Global Ambassador and has taken part in aquatics clinics for Special Olympics swimmers in Shanghai, China and elsewhere. Other celebrity supporters include Olympic stars Michelle Kwan, Apolo Ohno, Kim Yuna, Yang Yang (A), and Scott Hamilton, and other sport greats Dikembe Mutombo, Pádraig Harrington, IK Kim, Dani Alves and Kaká, along with celebrities including Zhang Ziyi, Yang Lan, Brooklyn Decker, Lauren Alaina, Nicole Sherzinger, and the Wonder Girls.[26] More recently, Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter, Japanese football legend Hidetoshi Nakata, and WNBA player Elena Delle Donne, whose older sister Lizzie has multiple disabilities,[29] were named Global Ambassadors in 2014.[30]

Unified Sports[edit]

In recent years, Special Olympics has pioneered the concept of Unified Sports, bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates.[31] The basic concept is that training together and playing together can create a path to friendship and understanding. The program has expanded beyond the U.S. and North America: a half-million people worldwide now take part in Special Olympics Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities.[31]

A recent study of Special Olympics Unified Sports in Serbia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and Hungary documented the program's benefits, including the effect of changing attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities. As one Unified Sports partner said, "I am ashamed to say that I used to laugh at these people (people with intellectual disabilities), now I will tell anybody to stop laughing if I see it and I will stand up for people if I can." [32] Other evaluations have also shown Unified Sports to be successful in building self-esteem and confidence in people with intellectual disabilities and also as a way to improve understanding and acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities among their non-disabled peers.[32]

The Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Regional Research centre is based at the University of Ulster Jordanstown and is jointly led by Professor Roy McConkey and Professor David Hassan.

Healthy Athletes[edit]

As Special Olympics began to grow, staffers and volunteers began to notice that athletes—children and adults with intellectual disabilities—also had many untreated health problems. In 1997, Special Olympics began an initiative called Healthy Athletes, which offers health screenings to athletes in need.[33]

Healthy Athletes currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry). Screenings educate athletes on health and also identify problems that may need additional follow-up.

Since the Healthy Athletes program began, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities. So far, more than 1.4 million Healthy Athletes screenings have been conducted for people with intellectual disabilities all around the world.[33]

The Special Olympics health initiative has attracted high-profile partners, including the Hear the World Foundation, which screened more than 1,000 athletes during the most recent World Winter Games in Korea; more than 200 of them were found to have hearing loss.[34][35]

In 2012, the Special Olympics Healthy Communities initiative launched in eight countries—Kazakhstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, South Africa and Thailand, as well as six U.S. states. The goal is to improve the health and well-being of people with intellectual disabilities and allow them to reach their full potential.[16]


The Special Olympics program has occasionally been the subject of criticism. Scholar Keith Storey[36] summarized many such objections in a 2004 article.

In previous years, some have felt that the Special Olympics in itself are a form of segregation. This is because of the necessity to have a disability to participate. Storey argues that since some studies have shown that Special Olympic events do not lead to the reduction of prejudice and also reinforces negative stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities.[36] One of the main arguments against the Special Olympics organization, according to Storey, is that there is a lack of normalization and promotion of negative images.[36] The lack of normalization comes from the differences in reaction to events. For example, in previous years the Special Olympics would find people to stand at the finish line to hug the athletes once they've completed a race. Also, the Special Olympics do not announce anyone who's lost a race.[36]

There are many other reasons that people object to Special Olympics, such as perceived promotion of Handicapism, the alleged promotion of corporations, and degrading paternalism, athletic ability.[36] The promotion of Handicappism is a theory that when a set of practice is put in place to promote unequal treatment of people because of assumed intellectual disability it creates two classes of people, "normal" and "disabled".[36] The integration of Corporations within the Special Olympics does help with fundraising and creates a large sum of donations to make these games possible. Yet, critics argue, such corporate involvement in Special Olympics is shallow public relations strategy that does little or nothing to integrate those with intellectual disabilities into the workforce at companies that sponsor Special Olympics. The term Paternalism, in this context, is used to describe posited problems with how the Special Olympics Organization is run. The board of directors have recognized only two of their board to have developmental disabilities. Therefore, the people doing the decision making and have the power of running this program are the people without disabilities. This double-standard, it is argued, reflects poorly on the Disability rights movement where people with disabilities control the service delivery system rather than relying on people without disabilities.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Special Olympics Board of Directors". specialolympics.org. Retrieved February 4, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Main page". 2013sopoc.org. Retrieved February 4, 2013. 
  3. ^ "Global Leaders Convene in PyeongChang, Korea Participate in Groundbreaking Special Olympics Global Development Summit". Special Olympics. 2013-01-30. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  4. ^ "World Winter Games return to Austria". specialolympics.org. October 12, 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d e "The History of Special Olympics". Retrieved September 12, 2010. 
  6. ^ http://ottawa.specialolympicsontario.ca/about-us
  7. ^ Kessler, p. 246
  8. ^ Johnson, Kirk (June 23, 1995). "Reaching the Retarded: An Old Kennedy Mission". The New York Times. Retrieved July 5, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b "Out of the Shadows: Events Leading to the Founding of". Special Olympics. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  10. ^ "Feature Article". Lib.niu.edu. 1968-07-20. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  11. ^ Mary Davis,[1], “How Health Checks on our Special Athletes are saving lives”, Evening Herald, Thursday, April 7th 2011
  12. ^ Fiona Brady, Taskforce ON citizenship, “Her bridges built, McAleese reflects on a decade in office”, Irish Independent, Saturday, November 3rd 2007
  13. ^ "Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act of 2004" (PDF). October 30, 2004. Retrieved September 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ "USA National Games". [dead link]
  15. ^ Cooper, Chet. "Timothy Shriver — Special Olympics". ABILITY Magazine. Retrieved 18 February 2014. 
  16. ^ a b "2011 Special Olympics Summer Games". The Atlantic Photo. July 12, 2011. 
  17. ^ "The Driving Force: Motivation in Special Olympians" (PDF). 2004. Retrieved September 23, 2011. 
  18. ^ a b "Young Athletes". Special Olympics. 2014-05-06. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  19. ^ "Google Drive Viewer" (PDF). Docs.google.com. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  20. ^ "Our Families". specialolympics.org. Retrieved February 4, 2013. 
  21. ^ a b "Volunteer for Special Olympics". specialolympics.org. Retrieved February 4, 2013. 
  22. ^ "Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 1921-2009: She Changed the World for People with Mental Disabilities". Learningenglish.voanews.com. 2011-08-19. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  23. ^ "Special Olympics: Divisioning". Resources.specialolympics.org. 2014-05-06. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  24. ^ "Special Olympics: Sports and Games". Sports.specialolympics.org. 2014-05-06. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  25. ^ "Famous Supporters". specialolympics.org. Retrieved February 4, 2013. 
  26. ^ a b "Special Olympics - Annual Report 2012". Special Olympics. 2012. 
  27. ^ Osvaldo Roggi, Luis (May 1996). "Un Tributo a Eloísa García Etchegoyhen de Lorenzo". Educoas (in Spanish). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Portal educativo de las Americas. Retrieved 11 July 2015. 
  28. ^ "¿Qué es Olimpíadas Especiales?" (in Spanish). Rivera, Uruguay: Diario Norte. 3 May 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2015. 
  29. ^ Hays, Graham. "Finding Her Way Back Home". Outside the Lines. espnW. Retrieved February 9, 2014. Elizabeth Delle Donne, or more often "Lizzie" to her sister, has autism and cerebral palsy. She has been blind and deaf since birth and has endured more than 30 surgeries related to her conditions. 
  30. ^ "Elena Delle Donne Named Special Olympics Global Ambassador" (Press release). Special Olympics. February 7, 2014. Retrieved February 9, 2014. 
  31. ^ a b "Unified Sports". Special Olympics. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  32. ^ a b "‘Unified Gives Us a Chance’" (PDF). science.ulster.ac.uk. 
  33. ^ a b "Health Programs". Special Olympics. 2014-05-06. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  34. ^ "Special Olympics". Hear The World. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  35. ^ "Healthy Athletes Stories". Special Olympics. Retrieved 2014-07-12. 
  36. ^ a b c d e f g Storey, Keith (2004). "The Case Against the Special Olympics" (PDF). Journal of Disability Policy Studies 15 (1): 35–42. doi:10.1177/10442073040150010601. Retrieved 9 November 2011. 

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