Monday, August 3, 2015

30 Reasons to celebrate, honor, and applaud the Special Olympics.

"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
-The Special Olympic athlete’s oath

In case you missed it, the Special Olympics just descended on the city of Los Angeles this summer, wrapping up a spirited closing ceremony on August 2nd after 8 epic days of competition. In all, it was by many counts the largest athletic event in the history of the city, included 500,00 spectators, $400 million pumped into the local economy, and athletes and coaches from 165 countries - to put it in context, the 1984 Summer Olympics only represented 140 countries.

With more than 25 sporting events including equestrian, judo, kayaking and roller skating, an astounding 27 world records were broken by the athletes. But the measure of success of the LA games and the Special Olympics goes far beyond records and medals, spectators and profits. So to really illustrate the lasting human impact, we came up with 50 reasons to celebrate, honor, and applaud the Special Olympics.

1.  The Special Olympics is the largest sports network in the world for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

2.  The Special Olympics now provides training and competition all year round for more than 4.4 million special athletes in 180 countries.

3.  The Special Olympics isn’t just one event, but with a continuum of 70,000 competitions every year, there are local, regional, and national events on a daily basis all around the world.

4.  The training, events, and competitions are always free of charge for special athletes and their families.

5.  Competitions are open to athletes with intellectual disabilities 8 years old and up. But younger children don’t have to miss out, as children ages 2-7 with special needs can participate in the S.E. Young Athletes Program.

6.  Volunteerism is a fundamental part of the Special Olympics, not only from an operational standpoint, but because families, volunteers, event staff, and coaches often find their lives enriched by being around the athletes as much as the other way around.

7.  There are plenty of satellite events and fundraisers for volunteers to help support the special athletes, like the popular Law Enforcement Torch Run, which includes a torch passing and lighting ceremony.

8.  The Special Olympics has more than 32 Olympic-style individual or team sports:

Alpine Skiing
Beach Volleyball
Cross-Country Skiing
Equestrian Sports
Figure Skating
Floor Hockey
Football (Soccer)
Open Water (ocean) Swimming
Power lifting
Short-track Speed skating
Table Tennis
Track and Field

9.  Events are organized so athletes of similar athletic abilities and function are placed in similar divisions.

10. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded to the first, second, and third-place winners at each event, respectively, and the fourth through eight-place finishers are awarded ribbons.

11. There are plenty of celebrities and athletes, both professional and Olympic, who support the games. Those include:

Michael Phelps
Avril Lavigne
Dikembe Mutombo
Jackie Chan
Yao Ming
Nadia Comaneci
Vanessa Williams
Colin Farrell
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Michelle Kwan
Apolo Ohno
Scott Hamilton
Hannah Teter

12. Additionally, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, and President Bill Clinton have played prominent roles as spokesmen or Global Ambassadors to the games.

13. Corporate sponsors and partners include Christmas Records Trust, the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics®, The Coca-Cola Company, The Walt Disney Company and ESPN, Lions Clubs International, Mattel, P&G, Bank of America, Essilor Vision Foundation, the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation, Finish Line, The Safeway Foundation, and Safilo Group.

14. Where did it all start? Back in June of 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver formed a day camp for children with intellectual disabilities right at her home in Potomac, Maryland, because she wanted to make sure they had a place to play and flourish.

15. She hosted the camp the next summer, too, and soon Camp Shriver became an annual happening.

16. Her heart was in the right place but her motivation also lay close to home, since her oldest sister, Rosemary Kennedy, daughter of Rose Kennedy, had an intellectual disability, herself. Tragically, Rosemary had gone under the knife for a lobotomy, but the surgery caused brain damage.

17. Bolstered by funding from the Kennedy Foundation (Shriver was the executive vice president), grants were issued to community centers, rec departments, and universities to engage similar camps.

18. While Eunice Shriver had a lot to do with inspiring the Special Olympics, others were equally vital. In fact, a Canadian physical education professor from Ontario, Dr. Frank Hayden, demonstrated with his research that “persons with intellectual disabilities can and should participate in physical exercise,” a concept that seems elementary today, and that “the benefits of such activity would be seen in all areas of the athletes’ lives.”

So in 1968, Dr. Hayden set up the first ever organized sports program for people with intellectual disabilities, when a group of special athletes played floor hockey at a local school gym.

Dr. Hayden so believed in the cause and what he’d seen at that local gym, that he made the trip to Washington D.C. on his own dime, where he made the acquaintance of Rose Kennedy (who’s daughter, Rosemary was disabled) and pitched the idea for a bigger athletic event.

19. Around the same time, Anne McGlone Burke, a phys ed teacher from Chicago, received a Kennedy Foundation grant for her idea of a one-time athletic competition for people with intellectual disabilities, which would be modeled after the Olympics.

20. And so the first International Special Olympics Summer Games was coroneted at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968. The one-day event saw 1,500 special athletes from the U.S. and Canada compete and have fun, thanks to sponsorship and organization by the Kennedy Foundation and Chicago Park District.

21. The event was such a success that Eunice Shriver announced the formation of the Special Olympics, which would expand to a wide array of sports and be hosted every two years.

22. In 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave their blessing for the Special Olympics to use their namesake.  To this day, the Special Olympics is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

23. The Special Olympics alternates between winter and summer games. The first Special Olympics World Winter Games was held in February 1977 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

24. The first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside of the U.S. was hosted in Dublin, Ireland in 2003. It included 7,000 athletes from 150 countries competing in at least 18 events. They were the first games to have their own opening and closing ceremonies broadcast live, which included the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who said it was “a time when Ireland was at its superb best."

25. President George W. Bush signed the Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act into Public Law 108-406 on October 30, 2004, which gives expanded funding for the games and programs.

26. Research over the years has confirmed that participating in the Special Olympics not only improves physical condition, lowering the rate of cardiovascular disease and obesity that is especially prevalent among disabled people, but bolsters emotional and psychological health, self-esteem, feelings of connection and meaning, and social skills.

27. One of the aims of the Special Olympics is to raise awareness and help erase stigmas through exposure to persons with disabilities. In 2008, the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International kicked off the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, encouraging people to stop using the word “retarded” in our everyday lexicon.

28. In recent years, the Special Olympics has launched a movement called Unified Sports, where athletes with intellectual disabilities train, play, and compete along side and among athletes without disabilities. The concept has proven invaluable for all participants, fostering understanding, compassion, involvement, and erasing negative stereotypes. More than half a million people worldwide now participate in Unified Sports.

29. The official mission statement of the Special Olympics:
“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, 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.”

30. The next games will be the S.E. World Winter Games, held in Graz and Schladming, Austria from March 14-25, 2017.

To get learn more, find out about Special Olympics in your area, or volunteer, you can go to

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