Very Special Olympics
the 1960s Eunice Kennedy Shriver—President Kennedy’s sister and
the wife of Sargent Shriver, the creator of the Peace Corps—maintained
a day camp for children with special needs on her farm in Maryland.
The activities that took place at that camp were the original
impetus for the special Olympics, an event that leaves no one
who watches it unmoved.
idea was to enable children with mental (and some physical) challenges
to compete in organized sports just like the rest of us do,” said
Neil J. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Special
Olympics New York. “The challenge would obviously be so beneficial
and enriching to their lives. Yet don’t think for a single minute
that bringing to life this obviously wonderful plan was simple
Johnson added, “You have to see the films of the first Games,
which were held at Soldier Field in Chicago…They built an outdoor
pool for the swimming events and, at every five feet or so, there
was a lifeguard panicking big-time, practically ready to jump.
In 1969, people actually thought that persons with mental retardation
had no buoyancy, that they couldn’t possibly swim a lick. The
common fear was that they’d just sink and drown.”
Of course America, and other countries, have come a long way since–and,
in many ways, they have the Special Olympics to thank for that.
Today, the Games are a global movement, encompassing 170 countries.
many developing countries, there was no recognition of mental
retardation at all before the Special Olympics came in,” Johnson
said. “They would just say ‘we don’t have any people like that.’
And even here in the U.S. it took some time to realize that these
games are not only wonderfully important for the competitors –
in the way of acquiring self-esteem, the joys and pride of achievement,
socialization, etc. – but to their families as well.”
know how Moms and Dads take tremendous pride in their kids’ participating
in Little League or excelling in other sports?” Johnson asked.
“Well, it’s no different for the families of children with mental
retardation. Not one bit.”
He added, “It is a very healing, very important thing. It strengthens
Over 33,000 volunteers help make possible the Special Olympics,
which now has both Winter and Summer Games, held at regular Olympic
intervals. The objective of the Games, which provide year-round
training for competitors, is not victory but participation.
Although medals are awarded, the competitions operate on a “divisioning”
basis. “Everyone can compete, regardless of ability,” said Johnson.
“And the ‘divisioning’ concept assures every participant that
they’ll compete against others at the same level.”
The Summer Games offer competitions in 22 sports making them a
program almost identical to the regular Olympics. “Some of our
athletes have really proven their stuff,” said Johnson. “This
last year, two of our young women have actually competed in the
Colgate Games (a major track and field competition for ‘regular’
He added, “Then, just last week, we had a golf tournament in Florida
and one of our competitors shot a hole-in-one! This would have
been a big deal, except a half-hour later another kid shot a hole-in-one.
I’m telling you, the PGA Masters Tournament may not have two holes-in-one
in one year…But we did. We surely did.”#
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