An idea to hold a simple track-and-field event at Soldier Field sparked an athletic flame that continues to burn 50 years later.
The roots of Special Olympics were planted in Chicago and have sprouted into a global community providing a platform to 5 million intellectually disabled children and adults throughout 172 countries to train and compete in more than 30 sports.
This July marks Special Olympics’ 50th anniversary, highlighting not only the achievements of the world’s largest sports organization for the intellectually disabled, but also the societal transitions marked by the athletes’ accomplishments.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s Eunice Kennedy Shriver — sister of President John F. Kennedy — decided to take action when she noticed the unjust treatment of people who develop and learn more slowly because of cognitive issues out of their control. She drew inspiration directly from her intellectually disabled sister, Rosemary.
In June 1962, Shriver held a summer day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard in Washington D.C. What later became known as “Camp Shriver” focused on what the children could accomplish — instead of concentrating on what they couldn’t do.
The camps allowed Shriver to craft her vision.
She became the force behind Kennedy’s White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities while directing the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Founded by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy — parents of John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senators Robert F. and Edward Kennedy, the foundation memorializes their eldest son, Joseph Jr. — who was killed during World War II. At that time the foundation’s emphasis was national attention on the disabled through grants for research, treatment, and education programs.
It was in 1967 when future Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke created the concept of a sporting event exclusively devoted to intellectually disabled children. At the time, Burke was a physical education teacher with the Chicago Park District who worked with kids with disabilities.
Burke championed for more programs to be offered to the disabled, noting how recreational activities challenge, encourage and foster teamwork amongst students who were being abandoned and isolated by society. Her approach was straightforward: Ask Chicago officials permission to hold a citywide track meet so they could compete against each other.
Support from Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Park District led to a partnership with Shriver. Burke’s plan to model the track-and-field event after the Olympics developed alongside Shriver and the Kennedy family. Burke then traveled to Washington to meet with the Kennedy Foundation to continue constructing an event where athletes from around the world with intellectual disabilities could compete.
The first International Special Olympics Summer Games came to fruition on July 20, 1968, at Soldier Field with 1,000 participants. The opening ceremony included a teen runner carrying a torch to light a 45-foot high “John F. Kennedy Flame of Hope.”
The event included the broad jump, high jump, softball throw, 25-yard swim, 100-yard swim, high jump, 50-yard dash and water polo. That year Shriver pledged more games would be held in 1970.
In 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee granted Special Olympics approval as the only other organization allowed to use the name “Olympics” in the U.S.
During the 1980s Special Olympics gained greater respect and recognition leading to the first International Games held outside the United States in 1993.
For the past 50 years Special Olympics athletes have been given an arena to perform and granted continuous opportunities to progress physically and mentally while being accepted by society. Between July 17 and July 21, the organization is returning to Chicago to celebrate this legacy.
This story is part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics. Special Olympics staffers and Chicago Sun-Times journalists collaborated in the production of this section.