A Very Special Anniversary
Special Olympics commemorates 50 years
More than five million athletes participating in Special Olympics activities worldwide each year.
Photos courtesy of Special Olympics
Just over half a century ago, a member of the Kennedy family embarked on a journey that impacts millions of people today. But this was no political campaign or government initiative. Rather, Eunice Kennedy Shriver — President John F. Kennedy’s sister — began what would ultimately become the Special Olympics.
Shriver’s sister, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability, and their relationship helped Shriver recognize the challenges people with intellectual disabilities faced.
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver was very concerned that there were not better conditions for people with intellectual disabilities at that time,” says Keith L. Fishburne, president and CEO of Special Olympics North Carolina. “Many of them were shut away in institutions and just did not have a good quality of life. And, I think, being from the influential Kennedy family, she was able to really create a social change back in those days.”
Thus, Shriver launched a camp at her home where people with intellectual disabilities could take part in the fun and games common at any other sports camp. Her program grew, and on July 20, 1968 — 50 years ago — the first international Special Olympics games were held in Chicago.
The Kennedys’ involvement, however, is simply one story. With more than five million athletes participating in Special Olympics activities worldwide each year, there are countless more illustrating how special these games really are.
Tar Heel Legends
Stories from North Carolina date back to the beginning. Six athletes from the Tar Heel State went to the games in 1968. Mike Stone, the only surviving athlete from those games, accepted a proclamation on behalf of the organization from Gov. Roy Cooper this summer declaring July 20 Special Olympics Day in North Carolina.
While Stone’s experience was one of the first, it certainly isn’t the last. Nearly 40,000 athletes currently compete in North Carolina’s Special Olympics games each year. The majority compete at the county level, with a local committee recruiting athletes and coaches to ensure they are properly trained. Most county organizations host a yearly event. Additionally, counties receive a yearly quota to send athletes to state-level competitions in Raleigh, Charlotte, Boone and Indian Trail. Regional events, in which athletes from other states participate, also occur throughout the year.
A much larger event occurred in 1999. That was the year North Carolina hosted the Special Olympics World Games, thanks in part to athlete Evelyn Noblett. Fishburne recalls that Noblett was in her late 40s or early 50s before she competed, because her parents had always worried about the strenuousness of the games. Noblett began competing after her parents’ deaths and, armed with an outgoing personality, she eventually joined the committee and lobbied to host the 1999 Special Olympics World Games in North Carolina.
Fishburne points out that this is just one example of where athletes with intellectual disabilities can become leaders. “Special Olympics just helps to give them their voice,” Fishburne says. “And in this case, the parents weren’t trying to do anything wrong or bad by Evelyn. They just wanted to protect her. In some sense Evelyn didn't need to be protected. She could take care of herself, and she showed that.”
Kristine Hughes, who began participating in North Carolina’s Special Olympics in 2002, offers another example of leadership. She parlayed her Special Olympics participation into a career, and now serves as the state’s athlete leadership manager, responsible for overseeing other athletes who serve as ambassadors for the organization. She is also a certified volleyball official. In fact, she called volleyball games at this year’s national Special Olympics games in Seattle.
“So often, it’s easy to say no, you can’t do something because of a disability, and being involved with Special Olympics stops that,” Hughes says. “It allows us to take part in sports — in leadership roles that we probably will need … outside of Special Olympics.”
Laura Lacy is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill.