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Two sisters, one act of love, the birth of a movement

Special Olympics provide sports training and athletic competition to almost five million athletes worldwide (Photo: SOI)
by Caroline Tranberg, AIPS Young Reporter, Denmark

SCHLADMING/RAMSAU, March 20, 2017 - When founder of Special Olympics Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a little girl she took her sister swimming, sailing and skiing. Her sister had intellectual disabilities, and including her in sports was groundbreaking. At this time Eunice Kennedy Schriver had no idea how important her love for her sister would be. Now we know that she would be affecting the lives of almost five million athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities. A total of 170 countries and almost five million athletes are members of the organization. It cannot be compared to either Olympics or Paralympics. Instead it is a humanitarian organization that wants to improve life for its athletes. Special Olympics see no disabilities, only abilities.

Fighting for family rights

The love story of Special Olympics began inside the walls of the famous Kennedy family. Rosemary Kennedy, who was the sister of former president of the United States John F. Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, had an intellectual disability. This made her father put her in the hospital to get one of the first prefrontal lobotomies. At this time she was just 23 years old. But the operation didn’t go well. Rosemary Kennedy spent the rest of her life in an institution in Wisconsin without much contact with her family.


Founder of Special Olympics Eunice Kennedy Shriver with South African athletes in 2002 (Photo: SOI)

This happened in the 1940s. Since then knowledge about intellectual disabilities has developed fast. Today Special Olympics has its own Health Care Programme with doctors specialized in athletes with intellectual disabilities. The doctors do free health checks on all athletes who ask for it.

In Special Olympics family means everything. In this year’s Winter Games there will be 5.000 family members present for the 2.700 athletes competing. Also the great amount of volunteers is specific to the family feeling - 3.000 volunteers are helping make this year’s Winter Games successful.

From a backyard day camp to World Games

While Rosemary Kennedy was still in an institution, Eunice Kennedy Schriver grew up to be a spokesman for children with intellectual disabilities. In 1962 she opened a day camp in her own backyard inviting children with intellectual disabilities to do sports together. The annual event grew bigger each year, and in 1968 the first Special Olympics Summer World Games rose from the ground in Chicago, United States.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s love for her sister culminated in founding of Special Olympics. A sports organization for a group of people that at the time had no voice. The philosophy is still the same as when it was founded in the 1960s. Special Olympics strive to create a better world accepting and including all people in the name of sports. Therefore the mission is clear: “to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.”

Her son Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, now carries on the vision from 50 years ago. At the Opening ceremony in Schladming he stood up in pouring rain using the spotlight to tell the crowds that inclusion is still the most important thing in Special Olympics: “We can and we will create a world of welcome.”


Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s son Tim Shriver is now the chairman of Special Olympics. At the Opening Ceremony in Schladming he used the night to talk about inclusion for athletes with special disabilities (Photo: Caroline Tranberg)

The love of training and competing

But Special Olympics is not only made on love between family members. It is the common love to training and competition that makes the Special Olympic athletes show up for practice and gain physical strength and demonstrate courage. In Special Olympics competitions they use divisioning to make sure the athletes compete with other athletes of equal abilities. In that way the competition becomes fair and more fun.

Unlike Olympics or Paralympics, in Special Olympics both national and international competitions are for everyone leaving no ages or abilities behind. In this year’s Special Olympics World Winter Games the athletes are all ages between eight and 64 years old.

Also the choice of sports is a way for the organization Special Olympics to include everyone. The 32 sports stares known sports as tennis and soccer, but also the newly adapted and less known sports such as floor hockey combining floor ball and ice hockey, as well as snowshoeing which is running with snowshoes on your feet.

A Special Olympic athlete might compete in one sport today and another one tomorrow. Love for the game doesn’t follow a specific sport. Instead it goes hand in hand with the athlete’s changing interests and abilities. Athletes with intellectual disabilities need the best conditions to develop themselves by training and competing the way they want to. In this way Special Olympics will continue to write on the love story Eunice Kennedy Shriver began.

Follow Caroline on Twitter @CaroTranberg

The Young Reporters Programme has been made possible thanks to the support of the European Union's Erasmus + programme

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