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The Sun Never Sets on the Special Olympics Movement

Our fourth decade is all about growth—exponential growth around the world. Millions of athletes are taking part in thousands of competitions every year. The sun never sets on the Special Olympics movement!

Milestones of the 2000s

January 2000

The “Campaign for Special Olympics” sets unprecedented goals to increase athlete participation by 1 million and to raise more than $120 million over a five-year period. This global campaign changes the face of the Special Olympics movement.

18-22 May 2000

Arnold Schwarzenegger joins Special Olympics athletes to light the Flame of Hope at the Great Wall of China. They launch the Special Olympics China Millennium March. China pledges to increase its number of athletes from 50,000 to 500,000 by 2005.

20-23 May 2000

The first Global Athlete Congress takes place in The Hague, Netherlands. Special Olympics athletes from every region in the world come together to discuss the future of the Special Olympics movement. Despite differences in language, culture, age and gender they hold discussions, challenge existing ideas and vote on new resolutions.

October 2001

Special Olympics develops and distributes So Get Into It® kits for students with and without disabilities to schools and teachers worldwide at no cost. They teach young people about intellectual disabilities while empowering them to “be the difference.” The lessons highlight values of inclusion, acceptance and respect.

12-14 July 2001

Cape Town, Johannesburg and Sun City, South Africa host Special Olympics African Hope. Former President Nelson Mandela, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Special Olympics athletes gather to light the Flame of Hope and kick off the largest Law Enforcement Torch Run through the streets of Cape Town. The event generates awareness of the movement throughout the continent. It also launches a major push to reach 100,000 new athletes in Africa by 2005.

Special Olympics District of Columbia athlete Ricardo Thornton with Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

21-29 June 2003

Ireland hosts the first Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held outside the United States. 5,500 athletes participate in this landmark event. It is the world's largest sporting event in 2003, capturing the hearts and imaginations of the Irish people.

How the 2003 Special Olympics World Games Transformed Ireland
The first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside the USA were an astonishing success.

30 October 2004

U.S. President George W. Bush signs the “Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act." This gives $15 million every year for five years to Special Olympics programs. The funding goes to initiatives that encourage greater respect and understanding for people with intellectual disabilities. This marks the first time that Special Olympics secures support through legislation.

23 December 2005

"The Ringer," a Farrelly Brothers film starring Johnny Knoxville, opens in theaters throughout Canada and the United States. The film includes appearances from more than 150 Special Olympics athletes. Its producers work with Special Olympics to challenge destructive stereotypes and negative thinking about people with intellectual disabilities.


Special Olympics surpasses its goal of doubling the number of athletes who participate worldwide to 2.5 million participants. With sports at the core, the movement stands as a leader in advancing rights and opportunities and policy change for its athletes in 165 countries worldwide.

10 June 2006

U.S. President and Mrs. George W. Bush host a tribute dinner at the White House to honor Special Olympics for its unprecedented growth over the past five years. The event also celebrates the 85th birthday of founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

2 October 2007

The city of Shanghai, China, hosts the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2007. The Games are broadcast internationally on a vast scale. Participation is at a record high -- bringing together more than 7,500 athletes from 164 countries take part.

These Games debut a new initiative called Young Athletes, aimed at children with intellectual disabilities ages 2 to 7.

The impressive Opening Ceremony for the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai.

July 2008

Special Olympics celebrates its 40th anniversary as a true global movement, with nearly 3 million athletes in more than 180 countries, including Afghanistan.

February 2009

The Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, USA, draws nearly 2,000 athletes from nearly 100 countries. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits and declares special needs advocacy "a civil rights movement."

May 2009

The U.S. National Portrait Gallery unveils a historic portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. It is the first portrait the Gallery has ever commissioned of an individual who has not served as a U.S. President or First Lady.


11 August 2009

The founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, dies at her family home in Massachusetts. Letters and messages celebrating her contribution to humanity pour in from world leaders and people from around the world.

Learn about the life and legacy of our founder at