Special Olympics ‘eternal flame of hope’ monument set for Soldier Field site

An artist's rendering of The Eternal Flame of Hope monument to be located on Soldier Field's north lawn at McFetridge Drive. | COURTESY SPECIAL OLYMPICS

For Eric Baumann, the “magnitude” of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics brought waves of emotion.

The decorated Special Olympics athlete, who has competed in the games for the last 25 years, moved to tears — for a few reasons — by the occasion.

“I cried tears of pride for the moms, the dads, brothers, sisters and others who’ve seen their athletes’ lives transformed because of Special Olympics,” Baumann said. “I cried tears of joy for the friends I have gained and some I have lost in my 25 years of being an athlete.”

Special Olympics Athlete Eric Baumann attends a groundbreaking ceremony at Soldier Field on Friday, March 2, 2018, for a monument called “Eternal Flame of Hope,” which commemorates the first Special Olympics Games, held in Chicago in 1968. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“I also cried tears of sadness because there’s still much to do,” he added. “Let’s work toward a world where we are not labeled as “disabled,” but a world that sees us as equals where we are all included.”

Athletes who competed in the first Special Olympics were joined by representatives from the games and the Chicago Park District, along with several elected and civic leaders, on Friday to break ground on a permanent “Eternal Flame of Hope” monument at Soldier Field in honor of the games’ 50th anniversary.

Chicago Parks District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly (from left), artist Richard Hunt, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Special Olympian Eric Baumann and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan participate in the official groundbreaking ceremony at Soldier Field on Friday, March 2, 2018, for a monument called “Eternal Flame of Hope,” which commemorates the first Special Olympics Games. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

At the ceremony, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the piece’s concept of a flame — one that will be seen by millions of people every year — would help others see Special Olympic athletes not just for what intellectual disabilities they might have.

“The truth is that what happened 50 years ago was our eyes were opened to the potential that every human being has and not to see them by disability, but by ability,” he said.

The 30-foot monument will be located at Soldier Field’s north lawn just off McFetridge Drive, on the site of the first Special Olympics Games 50 years ago.

In a statement earlier this week, Emanuel said: “The Eternal Flame of Hope not only celebrates Chicago as the birthplace of Special Olympics, it is a testament to the depth and talent of athletes who compete at the highest level every year. Special Olympics will always have a home in Chicago, and we are proud to support the participating athletes who showcase to the world what it means to be an Olympian.”

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Although 2018 Special Olympics USA Games will take place July 1-6 in Seattle, Washington, there are plans set for an official 50th anniversary celebration July 17-21 in Chicago, featuring athletes from across the globe. A four-mile, lakefront Torch Run featuring Special Olympics athletes and law enforcement officers is slated for July 20, which will conclude with the official lighting of the eternal flame.

Other events include Special Olympics’ Unified Soccer Cup competition at Toyota Park, a Global Day of Inclusion at Soldier Field, and concerts at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the first Special Olympics at Soldier Field, July 1968. | Courtesy Special Olympics

“The Chicago Park District is proud to have played a part in the founding of Special Olympics and to carry on the great legacy through the inclusive programming we run for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at more than 21 park locations across the city,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly said, in a statement earlier in the week. “This monument will serve as a reminder of that first event and serve as a beacon symbolizing the potential of every individual for greatness.”

Special Olympics was founded by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver. More than 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities participated in the first official summer games, a one-day event held on July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field.

More information about the Chicago celebrations, visit www.specialolympics50.org.

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