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Frequently Asked Questions


Special Olympics is a global organization that changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion among people with and without intellectual disabilities. We unleash the power of the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports, every day around the world.

Through year-round sports, health, education and community building, we change the lives of people with intellectual disabilities in 193 countries. We are providing opportunities and helping fight the intolerance, injustice, inactivity and social isolation faced by our 5.5 million athletes.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities continuing opportunities to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience joy and friendship. Everyone involved in Special Olympics—including over 1.1 million coaches and volunteers—also benefits as we strive together for excellence and appreciation of all different abilities.

How many people are involved in Special Olympics?

There are 5.5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities involved in Special Olympics programs around the world. In addition, we have more than 1.1 million coaches and volunteers. We have 244 national and U.S. Programs in 193 countries.

What is Special Olympics' mission?

To provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

When are Special Olympics World Games held?

Special Olympics World Games are held every two years, alternating with Summer and Winter Games. The next Special Olympics World Games be Special Olympics World Games in 2023 in Berlin, Germany.

Our most recent Games were the Special Olympics World Games in March 2019 in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The first Special Olympics International Summer Games were held in Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1968. and first World Winter Games were held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, USA, in 1977.

In addition to the World Games, Special Olympics holds competitions at the local, state/province, country, region and world level every year. In all, more than 100,000 Special Olympics competitions are held every year.

Who is eligible to participate in Special Olympics?

To be eligible to participate in Special Olympics, you must be at least 8 years old and identified by an agency or professional as having one of the following conditions: intellectual disabilities, cognitive delays as measured by formal assessment, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delay that require or have required specially designed instruction. The Special Olympics Young Athletes™ program was created for children with intellectual disabilities ages 2 through 7.

Who was Eunice Kennedy Shriver?

Eunice Mary Kennedy (1921 – 2009) was born in Brookline, Mass., USA, the fifth of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy. After graduating from college, she worked for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., and later became a social worker at the Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Va. She later moved to Chicago, Ill., where she worked with the House of the Good Shepherd and the Chicago Juvenile Court.

Starting in the 1950s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver pushed for research and programs that would benefit people with intellectual disabilities. She was the driving force behind President John F. Kennedy's White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities. For this neglected population, Shriver said, "the years of indifference and neglect, the years of callous cynicsm and entrenched prejudice are drawing to a close. The years of research and experiment...are upon us now with all their promise and challenge."

She continued this pioneering work as director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. In 1962, she began an experimental camp in her backyard for young people with intellectual disabilities, which continued throughout the 1960s. Her work eventually grew into the Special Olympics Movement, which launched at the first Special Olympics International Games on July 20, 1968.

Who leads Special Olympics now?

Mary Davis is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Special Olympics, leading the organization and all of its functions in seeking to fulfill the mission and the achievement of the goals of the strategic plan. Based at the Special Olympics global headquarters in Washington D.C., she leads an international team of more than 200 professionals throughout the world who are implementing sports, health, education and community building programming in 169 countries every day around the world.

Who was Rosemary Kennedy?

Rosemary Kennedy (1918 – 2005) was the oldest daughter of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy.

Rosemary was born with intellectual disabilities and was known to have talents in many areas, especially sports. One of her most frequent companions was her sister, Eunice Kennedy, who was three years younger.

Rosemary was one of the inspirations for Eunice's interest in creating a better world for people with intellectual disabilities. Rosemary grew up during a time when people did not talk about intellectual disabilities. When Eunice wrote a 1962 article in the Saturday Evening Post about Rosemary and the Kennedy family's struggles finding her proper care, it became known as a "watershed" event in changing public attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities.

Eunice and Rosemary
The relationship between Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her sister Rosemary Kennedy was the root of the entire Special Olympics movement.

Who was Sargent Shriver?

From the Peace Corps to Head Start to Special Olympics and beyond, Robert Sargent "Sarge" Shriver (1915 – 2011) worked to give everyone the chance to reach their full potential. He was a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy who earned a Purple Heart for wounds received during the bombardment of Guadalcanal. He married Eunice Kennedy in 1953.

Shriver was a key strategist during the presidential campaign of his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy. During the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations, Shriver founded several vital programs and agencies, including the Peace Corps, Head Start, VISTA and the Job Corps, among others. He later served as President of the Special Olympics movement, as well as Chairman and Chairman of the Board Emeritus. With his leadership, Special Olympics expanded into the Middle East, Far East, the former Soviet Republic and elsewhere.

What is the Special Olympics athlete oath?

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

What is the origin of the Special Olympics athlete oath?

Eunice Kennedy Shriver jotted down the Special Olympics athlete oath on the morning of July 20, 1968—just ahead of the opening of the very first Special Olympics International Games. She recited them at a brief Opening Ceremony at Chicago's Soldier Field before the start of competition.

The words emphasize the importance of effort—and trying for one's personal best. Nearly 50 years later, these words resonate with Special Olympics athletes: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."

Why use the term "Special"?

In the 1960s, when Special Olympics was founded, "retarded" was the acceptable term to describe people with intellectual disabilities. This was a time when people with intellectual disabilities were routinely institutionalized because their gifts and talents were not recognized.

That's why Eunice Kennedy Shriver wanted to use language that was positive—language that would help set an upbeat tone. There were many conversations about words that could best describe an exceptional group of people. Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw the adjective "special" as a way to define the unique gifts of adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Starting with the very first Special Olympics International Games in 1968, she wanted to dwell on our athletes' abilities, not disabilities.

Can individuals with profound disabilities participate in Special Olympics?

Yes, through Special Olympics Motor Activities Training Program (MATP), developed by physical educators, physical therapists and recreation therapists. MATP emphasizes training and participation rather than competition.

What is divisioning?

In Special Olympics competitions, athletes of all ability levels are encouraged to participate, and every athlete is recognized for his or her performance. Through a process called divisioning, Special Olympics competitions are structured so that athletes compete with other athletes of similar gender, age and ability in equitable divisions. This makes for exciting competitions!

What does the Special Olympics logo signify?

The Special Olympics logo depicts five figures in a unifying circle, symbolizing our global presence.

The figures have arms in a lowered position, recalling the time when many people were unaware of the talents and abilities of adults and children with intellectual disabilities—a time before the founding of Special Olympics.

The straight arms describe a greater equality and outreach. The raised arms represent "joy", and continued realization of ultimate goals.