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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Special Olympics: from President Kennedy's sister's lawn to Abu Dhabi

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the first champion of a movement that has been embraced by the world

The Special Olympic torch arrived at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The Special Olympic torch arrived at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

It was a summer day in 1962 when a succession of bright yellow school buses began to pull up outside a large house on farmland a little to the north of the US capital, Washington DC.

The children who emerged were some of the most marginalised in America. Black and white, they all suffered from the same label: retarded.

They had been invited to Camp Shriver, an event that is marked as the beginning of the Special Olympics World Games.

For all their problems and challenges, the children and their families had a powerful ally in their host. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F Kennedy, President of the United States, and Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General.

The Kennedys then were at the peak of their power and glamour. But one family member was hidden from the public eye. Rosemary Kennedy, the oldest daughter in a family of nine children, had suffered from undiagnosed developmental delays from birth.

In 1941, at the age of 23, she underwent a lobotomy, secretly ordered by her powerful father Joseph Kennedy who hoped to “cure” her. Instead the operation was a disaster, leaving Rosemary with the intellect of a two year old, and condemning her to a life in institutions.

Eunice had long cared for her sister and ensured that she played a full role in family life until that point. Now she threw herself into championing the rights of all those with intellectual disabilities, taking charge of the family foundation which supported research in the field, and pushing her brother, the president, to sign legislation for a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

It was a smaller gesture that created the Special Olympics, but no less far reaching. Eunice had been contacted by a woman whose child’s disabilities meant they could not find a place at a summer camp.

Her response was to open her own home, where 50 girls and boys, otherwise written off by society, spent several days running, jumping, riding, swimming and generally experiencing the joys of a normal childhood.

Five years later, Eunice was contacted again. Anne Burke, a 23-year-old physical education teacher, was running a summer programme for children with disabilities in Chicago.

She wanted a larger event to showcase their talents but was rejected at every level. In a recent BBC documentary about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Burke recalled that one charity official even shouted her down. “Who do you think you are, putting these people on display,” she was told.

Meeting with Eunice, she received another rebuke. Her proposal, she was told was “unacceptable.” The reason? The scope of the proposed event, Eunice felt, was too small and too narrow in its scope.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - March 13, 2019: The arrival of Special Olympic torch team at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Wednesday the 13th of March 2019 at Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - March 13, 2019: The arrival of Special Olympic torch team at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Wednesday the 13th of March 2019 at Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

And so, the following July, Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago hosted the first event to carry the name Special Olympics, inviting children and young people from across America to take part.

This time 1,000 children from 26 US states and Canada took up the invitation and the games’ oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

The event would take place every two years, it was decided. The second games in 1970 and also held in Chicago, saw France become the first nation to take part from outside North America.

By the time of the 1972 games, held in Los Angeles, the US Olympic Committee had given the organisers the right to use the word “Olympic” in the title. This time there were 2,500 athletes and coaches from every state in America and three international programmes.

The Special Olympics now had an unstoppable momentum, one with powerful supporters. President Gerald Ford held a benefit gala in Washington in 1975, while celebrities backing the cause included the singer Barbra Streisand and the actor Michael Landon, best known as the star of the hit TV series Bonanza.

The fourth games, held that year in Michigan, saw more competitors, more events and 10 nations taking part. For this first time it began to get media coverage, including a nationwide TV broadcast on the CBC network.

The arrival of Special Olympic torch team at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The arrival of Special Olympic torch team at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Two years later, the first Winter Special Olympics were held at Steamboat Springs, with 500 athletes competing in skiing and skating and more TV interest.

The pattern was now set for the future. As with the Olympics, a Special Olympics — including summer and winter Games — would occur once each every four years.

For the next two decades, the Games continued to be held in the United States, with the exception of the 1993 and 1997 Winter Olympics in Austria and Canada.

Increasing, though, they were a major international event. They were officially endorsed by the International Olympic Committee in 1988 and backed by the United Nations with a dedicated year in 1996.

By the mid 1980s, the number of participating nations had risen to 50. When President Bill Clinton opened the 1995 games in Connecticut, there were record crowds and more than 7,000 athletes from 143 countries.

In 2003, the summer Special Olympics also moved overseas, to Dublin, in Ireland, and then, four years later, to Shanghai, China, broadcast globally and with more the 7,000 taking part.

By the time of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s death in 2009, tens of millions of dollars had been raised for programmes to help those with intellectual and cognitive disabilities enjoy a healthier lifestyle, and supporting their families.

The 2019 Special Olympics World Games, awarded to Abu Dhabi in 2016, will see a record number of participants taking part in 24 sports.

They are now part of huge international network with programmes in 172 countries from Afghanistan to Venezuela, including 18 in the Middle East and North Africa Region alone.

It has been calculated that at least one Special Olympics sporting event takes place everyday somewhere in the world.

The movement that started with a few dozen children on a garden lawn has become worldwide draw that has improved the lives of millions who might otherwise live in the margins.

Updated: March 13, 2019 08:07 PM

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