1968 Games

July 1968 was a fertile time for change, a time when the culture was open to new ideas, a time to bend the old norm and shape a new one. The Chicago Games, in short, united people with intellectual disabilities with so many others (women, minorities, the young) who were also searching for their basic civil rights, never mind freedom.

As Eunice and her army of young advocates began to raise awareness about the abilities of citizens with intellectual disabilities-the old way was only to see their limitations-barriers began to tumble. People with intellectual disabilities don't have to be locked away in rooms? They can socialize and participate in summer camps without being a danger to themselves or others? They have talents and dreams and aspirations just like everyone else?

Thus, the progression toward people with intellectual disabilities participating in organized athletics became inevitable, if overly due. It's always like that in sports, though. Women were kept from competing in the Olympics in track and field until 1928. Blacks never played in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the barrier in 1947.

In the early 1960s Eunice and the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation worked with Dr. William Freeberg, chairman of the recreation and outdoor education department at Southern Illinois University to develop workshops focused on the principle that everyone, including people with disabilities, benefits from recreation.

Inspired by the knowledge gained from these workshops, Anne Burke, an instructor with the Chicago Parks District sent a proposal to the Kennedy Foundation to hold a one-time citywide track meet in 1967 modeled after the Olympics. You give Eunice "one-time" and she sees "annual." You give Eunice "citywide" and she sees "nationwide." She immediately saw the potential of the idea and the Foundation asked Burke to expand its scope to include more sports and athletes from across the United States. Soon, there were Foundation staffers in Chicago planning the event with Burke.

On July 20, 1968, Eunice opened what was then known as both the "Chicago Special Olympics" and the "First International Special Olympics Games." Though the mainstream press largely ignored it, Eunice, and others made sure it was a first-rate, well-organized event. It was held in Chicago's Soldier Field, a legendary sporting venue. About 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 26 U.S. states and Canada competed in track and field, floor hockey and swimming.

A decade earlier, people with intellectual disabilities weren't even being educated. Now they were running, jumping and swimming in Soldier Field.

The Chicago Games can only be understood in the context of the era. America was deeply divided--old against young, man against woman, black against white, pro-war against anti-war. The Tet Offensive six months earlier had brought Vietnam into America's living rooms for the first time. Eunice's brother, Bobby, seen as the hope of many to unify this splintered nation, had been assassinated in Los Angeles just seven weeks earlier. And a month after Eunice convened the Chicago Games, the city would explode in a maelstrom of violence between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention. Change was happening everywhere.

"The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact," Eunice said in her Opening Ceremonies address. "That exceptional children - children with mental retardation - can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth."

Chicago represented the first time that a now-familiar phrase was put into the cultural consciousness. Special Olympics. Eunice's cause would now be co-joined with sport, and that is something that America, and the world, can understand.

The complexity of the times was best illustrated in a quote from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who just a month later would become a national figure for ordering his police to beat protestors. But at the Games he struck a much gentler and forward-thinking note: "You know, Eunice," he said, "the world will never be the same after this."

July 20, 1968, stands as nothing less than the most important single date in the history of Special Olympics.