Eunice Kennedy & The Special Olympics At 50
The seeds were planted in 1946 when clan patriarch Joseph Kennedy, Sr. created a foundation to better the lives of the mentally disabled. But it was Joe’s daughter, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who picked up the mantle and helped launch the first Special Olympics World Games on July 20, 1968.
A life-long advocate for the intellectually handicapped, Eunice leveraged her family’s resources and connections to bring to light the marginalization of children and adults suffering from mental retardation.
Her efforts coincided with pioneering research in the 1950’s and 1960’s that showed that physical exercise and activities for special needs children resulted in positive effects that also carried over to the classroom.
With 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada, the first Special Olympics took off at Soldier Field in Chicago as a joint venture between the Kennedy Foundation, which kicked in $25,000, and the Chicago Park District.
The first events- Track & Field, Swimming and Floor Hockey- eventually morphed into today’s 32 Olympic style competitions that are offered in both summer and winter seasons.
Only six weeks after her brother Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Eunice opened up the Games in front of a crowd of less than 100 attendees.
Declaring that one day a million of the world’s intellectually challenged athletes would compete at the Special Olympics, her prediction was understated.
Fifty years on, 5 million athletes and their unified partners are active in training and competing at these special sports programs, which span 170 countries.
Fighting the prevailing thought of the day wasn’t easy. One of the volunteers looking for donations to the inaugural Games was told “You should be ashamed of yourself putting these kind of kids on display!”. The comment came from a representative of Tribune Charities.
For the blue-blooded New Englander, the drive to reach out and improve the lives of retarded individuals had personal roots. One of nine children born to Joe Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, the family’s oldest daughter Rosemary was developmentally-challenged.
The foundation that Joe Sr. had originally established was named after his eldest son, Joe P. Kennedy Jr. who was killed in World War II flying a B-24 bomber. But the organization’s mission statement made no mention of Rosemary who had already been institutionalized for several years.
At age 23, Rosemary disappeared from the Kennedy spotlight after a botched frontal lobotomy left her incapacitated. The procedure was new for the time and was authorized by her father without the knowledge of her mother.
Throughout most of her adult life, Rosemary was carefully concealed from the public eye, seen as a shameful mark and liability for a family of political overachievers.
Until her condition was revealed for the first time in a 1962 watershed article written by Eunice, Rosemary was simply described by the Kennedys as shy and withdrawn.
When Eunice invited her sister and other mentally retarded guests for a swim at her Maryland farm in the summer of 1962, she started a tradition that evolved into something grand and transformative.
Camp Shriver, which ultimately led to the Special Olympics, became a sports-focused therapeutic enterprise, shedding the old stereotypes that kids with special needs were difficult, unteachable and belligerent. Guests were also paired with volunteer mainstream kids to help build social interaction, leading to unified sports initiatives.
A tireless champion for her cause, Eunice received countless recognitions, including from the sporting world.
At the 2006 NCAA Centennial celebration, she was listed as the 9th most influential person in the organization’s history. Two years later, ‘Sports Illustrated’ named her as first recipient of the Sportsman Of The Year Legacy Award.
The grand dame died on August 11, 2009, but not before leaving behind one of the richest sports legacies today.
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