ON A STEAMY July 20 morning in 1968 Eunice Kennedy Shriver stepped up 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 in the streets profoundly altered the American political 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, three million Special Olympics 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 next ones coming up 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 attitudes and laws.
Ireland rewrote its antidiscrimination statutes after the Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in Dublin in 2003. China once routinely warehoused its intellectually challenged, but at the '07 World Games in Shanghai a crowd of 80,000 cheered as a video on the stadium scoreboard showed the country's president, Hu Jintao, cavorting with a group of Special Olympics athletes. Three decades ago Russia claimed that it had no citizens with intellectual disabilities—it sent a team of 190 to Shanghai.
In Egypt, Special Olympics athletes practice snowshoeing (a Winter Games event) on sand in front of the pyramids, and in embattled Iraq and Afghanistan, people who were once locked in dark rooms now kick soccer balls in the light of day. The Special Olympics movement is built upon hundreds of big moments and thousands upon thousands of small ones. In St. Kitts a young boy with intellectual challenges picks up a grapefruit, tosses it toward a stone, and now he's a bocce player. In Turkey a father watches his daughter run a race and, through tears, tells a Special Olympics official, "I never even thought of my daughter as my daughter before."
IT WAS a daughter who started all this. Born into wealth and power, the middle child of nine in this country's version of a royal family, Eunice Kennedy Shriver chose to lobby for the powerless. Yes, she used her connections from time to time. When Iowa's Tom Harkin was a freshman senator in 1984, he got a political favor from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and, sure enough, was visited shortly thereafter by Eunice, who asked for his support for Special Olympics funding. But she never twisted arms or peddled her influence to build her own power base. She used it to help those who were invisible or perceived to be an embarrassment by the population at large. And for her selfless work, on the 40th anniversary of the birth of the movement she founded, SI honors her with its first Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.
The results of her efforts speak for themselves, but her son Tim, now the organization's chairman, puts it all in some perspective. "If you look at her brothers and sisters and all that they accomplished," he says, "no one will stand any higher than my mother."