CFL News
April 19, 2018

Special Olympics 50th Anniversary: Through Sports, a Movement for Inclusion was Started

Special Olympics 50th Anniversary: Through Sports, a Movement for Inclusion was Started

By Chris Winston, Special Olympics Illinois

Fifty years ago, the world began to change for millions of people with intellectual disabilities – and the millions more who love them. And it all started in Chicago.

In the 1960s, children and adults with intellectual disabilities lived in the shadows of society. They were hidden away in homes or institutions, and they didn’t have the chance to go to school or work. They were not encouraged to be part of the community.

Intellectual disabilities (ID) were badly misunderstood. Many people with ID were trapped by stigma; their families burdened by shame. No one thought people with ID could learn skills – or that they could benefit from exercise. No one realized that sports could actually help in mental, adaptive and social development.

The First Games

In July 1968, the first Special Olympics International Summer Games changed attitudes about people with ID. The Games put a new, bright – and very public – spotlight on ability, not disability. The 1968 Games in Chicago have been called “daybreak” for people with ID. For the first time, people with ID were on center stage – not in the shadows.

At Chicago’s Soldier Field, centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding about people with ID began coming to a close. A series of fortunate events helped make this historic breakthrough possible. A number of innovators and pioneers were also an essential part of this history, including Anne McGlone Burke, William McFetridge, Dr. William Freeberg, Dr. Frank Hayden, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Choose to Include

With the first games in 1968, which began the foundation of what Special Olympics is today, it started a rebellious stand against the injustices faced by people with intellectual disabilities. No longer would the world turn its back on the most vulnerable among us. The solution was simple: give people with intellectual disabilities a chance to demonstrate their abilities, determination and value through sport. The pioneers in the beginning of the Special Olympics movement faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and yet never wavered in their steadfast belief that every person deserves to be treated with respect and have an opportunity to be included. Fifty years later, Special Olympics has grown from summer camps and the first games in 1968 with 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada to a global movement reaching more than 5.5 million individuals with intellectual disabilities in 172 countries.

Despite this amazing feat, there are two hundred million people with intellectual disabilities who continue to face an uphill battle for inclusion. The fight against complacency, ignorance and stigma that was initiated 50 years ago is still just as critical today. For some, it is a lack of access to healthcare, for others education, and still others the threat of ongoing discrimination, ridicule, derision, and even neglect and abuse.

Today the fight for inclusion is more relevant than ever. People of all ages, races, genders, cultures, backgrounds and abilities continue to face discrimination, ignorance and disparagement. Just as Justice Burke, Dr. Freeberg, Dr. Hayden and Eunice Kennedy Shriver did in 1968, Special Olympics is setting a stake in the ground and is once again prepared to alter the course of history – this time, with people with intellectual disabilities leading the way.

No longer is it enough to provide a place for people with intellectual disabilities to come together through sport. It is time to demand uncompromising inclusion – in school, employment, healthcare, social activities and yes, sports, too. From the youngest to the oldest.

July 2018

Five decades after its humble beginnings, the Special Olympics are returning to Chicago to launch the year-long global Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations this July. Special Olympics International, Special Olympics Illinois and Special Children’s Charities in Chicago are uniting to host nearly a week of exciting events to celebrate the first 50 years of Special Olympics and to launch the movement into the future.

There are numerous events as well as hundreds of volunteers opportunities planned for July 17-21, 2018, in Chicago. The week will kick off with the first-ever Special Olympics Unified Cup. The 4-day competition will take place July 17-20 at Toyota Park in Chicago. Unified teams – including players with and without intellectual disabilities – will compete alongside their local football/soccer club sponsors. There will also be a Law Enforcement Torch Run Commemorative Run and the ceremonial lighting of the Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope, which will symbolize Special Olympics’ and Chicago’s burning passion for inclusion and justice for people with intellectual disabilities. The celebration will conclude on July 21 with a star-studded Global Day of Inclusion. The public can “Play Unified” and join in fun athletic competition with Special Olympics athletes, followed by a concert at Northerly Island.

Join the 50-year celebration of Special Olympics sport, inclusion and opportunity when the world comes to Chicago July 17-21 for what will be an awesome and memorable celebration.

Visit to find out more.