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The Special Olympics legacy: How it all began in Chicago

Scene from the first Special Olympics at Soldier Field in 1968. | Special Olympics file photo

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.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, center, William McFetridge of the Chicago Park District, right, and Special Olympics athletes, including Kevin O’Brien, meet with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, left, before the 1968 Chicago Special Olympics Games. | Special Olympics file photo

Backyard beginnings

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.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, left, with athletes at the 1968 Special Olympics. | Special Olympics file photo

Enter Anne Burke

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.

Future Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, right, and her husband, future Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke, at the Special Olympics in 1968. | Special Olympics file photo

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 games happen at Soldier Field

Scenes from the 1968 games. | Special Olympics file photos

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.

A celebration in Chicago

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.

Read more about Special Olympics:

Special Olympics ‘5 for 50’: 5 athletes for 50 years — and a bonus

Soccer tourney, torch run and Chance the Rapper all part of Special Olympics’ big Chicago celebration

50 years, 50 videos: A visual celebration of the Special Olympics

The future of Special Olympics: Come join the inclusion revolution

For Daniel Smrokowski, chronicling SO athletes’ journeys is a study in empowerment

Miles, medals, an ESPY and a movie mark Loretta Claiborne’s Special Olympics journey

For one Illinois athlete, Special Olympics go beyond sports. They’re his voice.

Beating the odds: 1st Special Olympian in Chicago sports hall of fame

Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope Monument set for Soldier Field site

New book spotlights Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics

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