On this day in history, July 20, 1968, athletes competed in the first Special Olympics International Games — now the largest sporting event for people with intellectual disabilities, according to National Geographic.
The first Special Olympics International Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.
About 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from the United States and Canada competed in the first Special Olympics International Summer Games in Chicago, the Special Olympics’ official website noted.
“The Opening Ceremony included a teen runner carrying a torch to light a 45-foot-high John F. Kennedy Flame of Hope. Over 200 events were offered, including broad jump, softball throw, 25-yard swim, 100-yard swim, high jump, 50-yard dash, water polo and floor hockey,” the Special Olympics’ official website said.
“Children with intellectual disabilities can be exceptional athletes and … through sports they can realize their potential for growth.”
The inaugural games were organized by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne McGlone Burke, who was then a 23-year-old physical education teacher with the Chicago Park District, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, according to the Chicago History Museum.
The Special Olympics originated and grew from “Camp Shriver” — held in Kennedy Shriver’s own backyard.
That’s where she created programs for young people with intellectual disabilities, said National Geographic
On Feb. 6, 1975, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. (center, rear) and his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (center, front), jogged and walked a mile on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., to kick off a 3,182-mile fundraising jaunt for the benefit of the Special Olympics sports program for mentally challenged youngsters. Ted Kennedy said his sister learned the lessons of their parents — that much is expected of those who have been given much. (AP)
This was the first introduction for many children to swimming, canoeing, horseback riding and structured games.
Through sports, Kennedy Shriver was changing the way people acted and reacted toward the intellectually disabled, the National Museum of American History noted.
In 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee granted Special Olympics the approval as the only other organization allowed to use the name “Olympics” in the U.S. said the Chicago Sun-Times.
“The 1993 International Winter Games in Austria set national records for media coverage,” noted the same source.
By the early 21st century, there were chapters in approximately 200 countries.
There were also in excess of one million athletes participating annually in 20,000 meets and tournaments held worldwide, culminating in the international Special Olympics World Games held every two years, alternating between winter and summer sports, the same source chronicled.
Today, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities: It has more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries and over a million volunteers, according to the National Museum of American History.
The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, according to the same source.
The next Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held in Torino, Italy. March 2025.