By Jack McCallum
Originally published in Sports Illustrated Magazine, December 8, 2008
On a steamy July 20th afternoon in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver strode to the microphone at Soldier Field in Chicago and convened the first Special Olympics Games. It was only seven weeks after her younger brother, Robert, had been gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and about five weeks before the Windy City exploded in violent confrontations between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention.
The assassination and the violence had lasting political effects on the American landscape...and, in a much different way, so did the Games at Soldier Field.
With a crowd of fewer than 100 people dotting the 85,000-seat stadium, about 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada, all of them routinely classified in those days as mentally retarded, marched in the opening ceremonies and followed Shriver as she recited what is still the Special Olympics oath:
Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who would become a polarizing figure at the convention that August, attended the four-day event and told Shriver, "You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this."
While skeptics shook their heads and most of the press ignored the unprecedented competition, Shriver boldly predicted that one million of the world's intellectually challenged would someday compete athletically.
She was wrong. Today, more than three million Special Olympic athletes are training year-round in all 50 states and 181 countries. They run races, toss softballs, lift weights, ski moguls, volley tennis balls and pirouette on skates. There are World Winter Games, the most recent in Boise, Idaho, in February, and World Summer Games, which will be staged next in Athens in 2011. Documentaries, Wide-World-of-Sports presentations, after-school TV specials, feature films, cross-aisle Congressional teamwork and relentlessly positive global word of mouth have educated the planet about Special Olympics and the capabilities of the sort of individuals who were once locked away in institutions. Schooling, medical treatment and athletic training have all changed for people with intellectual disabilities as a result of Shriver's vision; more important, so have minds, attitudes and laws.