Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Special Olympics, 50 Years on Few People Attended the First Games, but It Marked the Start of a Human Rights Revolution

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Special Olympics, 50 Years on Few People Attended the First Games, but It Marked the Start of a Human Rights Revolution

Article excerpt

One of history's most transformative human rights movements began on a steamy July afternoon 50?years ago in front of fewer than 100 spectators. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, speaking six weeks after her brother Robert was killed, stepped to the microphone at Soldier Field in Chicago and opened the first Special Olympics Games. Shriver, then 47, her voice a gravelly mix of upper-crust Hyannis Port and dockside stevedore, boldly stated that 1 million of the world's intellectually challenged would someday compete in Special Olympics.

That prediction proved wrong. Today, 5 million Special Olympics athletes train year-round in 50 states and 170 countries. There are successful games in such far-flung places as Burkina Faso (West Africa), East Timor (Southeast Asia) and Vanuatu (the South Pacific); and even as war fractures the Middle East, Special Olympics events continue in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Syria.

Special Olympics' medical branch runs the largest worldwide health organization for people with intellectual disabilities, and in schools throughout the world "unified sports" teams pair intellectually challenged students with mainstream students, providing an education for both.

The organization's success in changing the lives of the mentally challenged clouds our memory of what life was like for that population before Shriver, who died in 2009, started making noise. There were few educational programs in schools for kids with intellectual disabilities, and thousands of kids and adults were locked away in institutions. Countless others were kept behind closed doors because parents were embarrassed, worried for their safety or both. Society at large wasn't kind, either. "You should be ashamed of yourself putting these kinds of kids on display," someone from Tribune Charities indignantly told a parks department volunteer when she requested sponsorship money for that first Soldier Field event. …

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