World Games

Early on, Eunice recognized the need for a platform to reach the larger public and mobilize people of influence around the movement. Although Special Olympics was growing incrementally and steadily in local communities changing real lives through year-round training and competitions, she wanted to get the word out faster, change public opinion faster. Thus, was born World Games.

Two years after Chicago, Eunice convened the second International Special Olympics Games, again in Chicago but with twice as many participants and athletes from all 50 states, as well as France (besides Canada, the earliest international supporter of the movement) and Puerto Rico. Then it was Los Angeles in 1972, and then it was Central Michigan University in 1975 ... with a very important milestone: CBS broadcast the competition between 3,200 athletes from 10 countries on its weekend "Sports Spectacular."

By this time there was a growing lobby to include winter-style competition, an aspect that added layers of complexity to the Special Olympics operation. But in 1977, not even 10 years after Chicago, the first International Special Olympics Winter Games were held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with more than 500 athletes competing under the watchful eye of all three networks.

And so it went, the numbers of athletes and number of countries always increasing. New York, Louisiana, Vermont and Utah all hosted competitions that were becoming increasingly international. By the time that the University of Notre Dame hosted the seventh International Special Olympics Games in 1987 in South Bend, Indiana, there were about 4,700 athletes from 70 countries involved. Notre Dame represented rather a watershed moment in Special Olympics history, not least because such an iconic university served as host. But the number of competitors had expanded exponentially, too, and ABC featured competition on its prime-time schedule.

Nevada, California, Minnesota-on it went. And in 1993 came another inevitable result of Eunice's far-reaching ambition: The first competition held outside the United States. That was the fifth Special Olympics World Winter Games in Salzburg and Schladming, Austria which was attended by Dr. Thomas Klestil, the first Head of State to ever open a Special Olympics World Games.

Two years later, U.S. President Clinton continued this tradition at the ninth World Summer Games in Connecticut. It was at those Games, too, that an official marathon (26 miles, 385 yards) was contested-Troy Rutter of Pennsylvania won it in the entirely respectable mainstream time of 2:59.18. It wasn't until 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, remember, that women competed in an Olympic marathon because it had been widely believed that the distance was too grueling for the feminine physique. Similarly, the running of the marathon represented another barrier broken for Special Olympics.

Canada, the only country outside of the U.S. to send athletes to the first Games in Chicago, got its reward in 1997 when the sixth Winter Games were held in Toronto. And Ireland, which drew praise from so many in the Special Olympics movement for coming so far and so fast in its treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, became the first non-U.S. nation to host a World Summer Games in 2003. By then, about 6,500 athletes from 150 nations were participating in 20 sports.

More countries, more dialogue between special-education teachers in different lands, more exchange of information, more sports-that was always the task. More and more, the locations of World Games were helping to advance growth of Special Olympics in the host country and region. As a result more athletes were being served along with building stronger support and awareness. In some cases, the Games have not only been a catalyst for growth in Special Olympics but also for increase in rights and services for people with intellectual disabilities off the playing field.

And so it was a major moment when in 2005 the Winter Games went to Nagano, Japan, the first time competition was held at a site where the Olympics (in this case the Olympic Games in 1998) had been held. The Games also marked the first time His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito and Prime Minister Koizumi presided over the same event demonstrating the importance of the Games to the nation and people of Japan.

That brings us to 2007. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was never one to look back and say, Wow, even I never thought we'd accomplish that. Self-limiting proclamations just aren't in her nature. But one has to imagine that even Eunice, in her private moments, had to shake her head in awe as the 2007 World Summer Games convened in China. It was the 12th summer competition-some believed that competition among special athletes would never go beyond Chicago. The support of 40,000 volunteers enabled the Games to go on at a grand scale-some believed that no one would be willing to help people with intellectual disabilities. The Shanghai Games were broadcast to billions around the world. And the Chinese government led by President Hu Jintao was wholly and steadfastly behind the Games.

Shanghai truly represented an Olympian moment. And it won't be the last.