Fifty years ago, the world began to change for the better, for millions of people with intellectual disabilities—and for all those who love them. And it started in Chicago, Illinois.
In the 1960s, children and adults with intellectual disabilities lived in the shadows of society. They were hidden away in homes or institutions.
They didn’t have the chance to go to school, to work or to play. No-one encouraged them to become a part of the community.
Intellectual disabilities were tragically misunderstood. Children and adults were trapped in a cycle of neglect and suffering; their families burdened by societal shame.
No one imagined that this segment of society could acquire athletic and socialization skills or possibly benefit from the therapeutic value of sports and exercise. Few people conceived of the notion that sports could further their mental and adaptive development in the world.
Then, one day in July 1968, the world began to change. The first Special Olympics competition was held in Chicago’s Soldier Field for young people with intellectual disabilities. The goal was to put a bright—and very public—spotlight on ability, not disability.
The 1968 event is described as “daybreak”—the early stirring of a global movement for people with intellectual disabilities. No longer trapped in the shadows, the Chicago Special Olympics Games made it possible for the athletes to compete and have fun—not to be stigmatized.
In the months and years that followed, centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding slowly began to melt away. A series of fortunate events helped make this historic breakthrough possible. Innovators, pioneers, and concerned, forward-thinking individuals of goodwill including Anne McGlone Burke; Dr. William Freeberg of Southern Illinois University; Dr. Frank Hayden; William McFetridge and Dan Shannon of The Chicago Park District, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver helped establish Special Olympics as an essential part of our modern history.
A New Dawn
Our understanding of people with intellectual disabilities evolved and changed during the post-war years of the 1950s and 1960s. Research studies in Europe and North America demonstrated how physical activity could aid and assist people with intellectual disabilities and help them to acquire new skills. The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation was among the first to focus efforts on this neglected population.
Kennedy Foundation Director Eunice Kennedy Shriver pioneered a unique experiment: a June 1962 day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities. Her goal was to ascertain and better understand what these children could do in sports and other recreational activities – removing the focus on what they couldn’t do.
Experts in the field, including Dr. James Oliver, whose 1958 study demonstrated that physical activities for children with intellectual disabilities had a positive effect that carried over into the classroom, turned out to work with the campers. Dr. William Freeberg of Southern Illinois University, who had initiated similar programs in the 1950s, joined with Dr. Oliver in this critical program assessment. Dr. Frank Hayden of Toronto, conducting important research concerning the value and importance of physical fitness for the intellectually disabled, also lent his support.
The “experiment” proved to be a resounding success. Encouraged, the Kennedy Foundation advocated for a year-round sports program in several areas of the United States. Three cities were selected, Boston, MA; Greensboro, NC; and Chicago IL.
The Foundation supplied essential funding in the amount of a $10,000 grant to the Chicago Park District to begin a Special Recreation Program (as it was then called) into ten city parks. Encouraged by the early success of the program, the Chicago Park District planned the city-wide track meet. Anne McGlone Burke traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Mrs. Shriver and enlist her endorsement and a pledge of financial support for the event.
Mrs. Shriver embraced the concept and encouraged Anne and her colleagues to establish this as a multi-sport, nationwide event.
In March, the Chicago Park District and Eunice Kennedy Shriver publicly announced the event date in Soldier Field. William McFetridge, president of the Park District, encouraged the city’s labor unions to become involved – carpenters, iron workers, plumbers and Teamsters joined in. The ground swell began to build, although the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) and The National Parks and Recreation Association declined to endorse the event.
One-thousand athletes from the U.S. and Canada marched into Soldier Field with their state flags and banners held high on July 20, 1968 to make history. The musical accompaniment of a marching band filled the spacious lakefront stadium as “James,” a seventeen-year-old young man carried the torch and lit the forty-five-foot flame that honored John F. Kennedy for championing research, education and support for the disabled.
That day, a seed was planted in the hearts and minds of the athletes, families, volunteers and the public. Today, this inclusive movement of joy and empowerment reaches more than 5 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in over 170 countries.
Pictured at the announcement proclaiming the Games, from left, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley; Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Executive Vice President Eunice Kennedy Shriver; and Chicago Park District President William McFetridge, alongside two young athletes.
Above, Eunice Kennedy Shriver hands a check to McFetridge and Burke as Chicago Park District Commissioner Marshall F. Bynum looks on
Above, Anne (McGlone) Burke visits with athletes and VIPs ahead of the competition.
Above, from left, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation; Illinois Governor Sam Shapiro; Chicago Tribune columnist Dave Condon; Daniel Shannon, vice president, Chicago Park District; Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Honorary Chairman of the Games; and William McFetridge, president of the Chicago Park District.
In the decades since, this oath has inspired Special Olympics athletes worldwide—now numbering more than 5 million in 170 countries, taking part in more than 100,000 competitions held around the world every year.
Above, a rare color photo from the 1968 Games shows the swimming pool specially constructed in Soldier Field.
Above, in July 1968, for the first time in history, people with intellectual disabilities stood proudly on a podium and were publicly recognized for their abilities. This changed everything!
As Eunice Kennedy Shriver said, “The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact. That exceptional children … can be exceptional athletes … through sports they can realize their potential for growth." Fifty years later, this movement of joy and inclusion has spread to millions of athletes and 170 countries around the world.
Two thousand balloons lofted into the sky. Mrs. Shriver ascended to the stage, challenging everyone to imagine a world where millions of people with intellectual disabilities could grow and compete alongside each other.
Their faces aglow, the athletes took the field to compete in over 200 challenging events including swimming, floor hockey and track and field. They ran, they jumped, and they swam with fierce tenacity and pride in accomplishment.
Between events, athletes participated in skills clinics taught by professional athletes. The LaSalle Hotel, officially chosen as the “Special Olympics Village,” provided participants with meals and entertainment and a place to relax and gather their thoughts.
Appearing at a press conference, Eunice Kennedy Shriver told assembled reporters, “Today’s Special Olympics Games have not been organized as a spectacle. They are not being conducted just for fun. The Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact. The fact that exceptional children [children with intellectual disabilities]—can be exceptional athletes. That, through sports they can secure a pledge that all children will have this chance in the future.”
Mrs. Shriver’s inspiring message to the athletes at the opening of the games instilled hope and would echo down for years to come. “Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.”
At the conclusion of each “heat,” winning athletes were presented with gold, silver and bronze medals. Every participant received a special Illinois Sesquicentennial commemorative medal marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the State in 1818. Together, athletes, parents and coaches celebrated their victories. Where they finished in the competition was less important than the simple joys of doing.
For many of the athletes, it was the first time they heard the sound of applause, which was given in a celebration of courage and in the spirit of inclusion.
The closing ceremonies marked the end of the historic one-day event. As the flags lowered and the torch was carried out of Soldier Field, athletes proudly displayed their medals and joined in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” with their coaches and chaperones.
Turning to Mrs. Shriver, Mayor Richard J. Daley casually remarked, “Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.”
Very soon, following the wonderful success of the meet, the entire world would change for the better, just as Mayor Daley prophesied. Although there was virtually no one in the stands in Soldier Field, the moment had at last arrived for society to take note of the talent and drive of people with intellectual disabilities.
Building on this tremendous momentum were members of the inner circle of planners, who had seen it through after months of dedicated commitment and hard work; Anne McGlone Burke; Dr. William Freeberg; Dr. Frank Hayden; Dr. Arthur Peavy of Miami; The Kennedy Foundation; William McFetridge, the hundreds of employees of the Chicago Park District and celebrity athletes.
After the first games in Soldier Field, Special Olympics formally incorporated in December 1968, with a seven-member Board of Directors: Dr. Robert Cooke; Dr. Hayden; Rafer Johnson; Thomas King; James Lovell; Dr. Lawrence Rarick; and Mrs. Shriver. Anne McGlone Burke joined later.
Within the next year, a number of Special Olympics programs formed across the U.S. and in Canada. The program crossed international borders not long after. Today, more than five million athletes train and compete in more than 100,000 events each year and in 172 nations.
A New Kind of Joy: the Story of the Special Olympics by James Haskins; Fully Alive by Timothy Shriver, 2014; History of the Special Olympics Illinois; Out of the Shadows: Events Leading to the Founding of Special Olympics.