On Friday, April 26 the Jackson County Special Olympics are being hosted by North Jackson High School. A friend reflected my feelings when she commented that Special Olympics day was “the happiest day of the year”. Many people are not aware of Special Olympics. I would like to present some history about the purpose of these games and the evolution of a single event into a worldwide celebration of special athletes.
The Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of John F. Kennedy). She was inspired to work with children with various challenges because her sister Rose was intellectually challenged herself. Mrs. Shriver held an event at her own home and sought to address the concern that children with challenges, whether intellectual or physical, had very little opportunity to participate in organized athletic events. This first event has grown and expanded. Currently these athletes have year round training with competitions for 5 million athletes in 172 countries around the world.
The Special Olympics athlete’s oath was written by Herbert J. Kramer, who was a PR advisor to the Kennedy Foundation. It says, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” I’ve always thought that this was a good motto for life in general.
Events of the Special Olympics are structured so that athletes compete with others of similar ability in equitable divisions. Medals are awarded for 1st-3rd places and ribbons presented to places 4-8.
The first inclusive Special Olympics were held at Soldier Field in Chicago. One thousand athletes from the US and Canada participated in the one day event. Currently, events are held in different venues all over the world, allowing athletes to participate and to expand their knowledge of the world and other cultures. Events include: track and field, badminton, basketball, bocce ball, bowling, cricket, cycling, equestrian, figure skating, floorball, floor hockey, soccer, golf, gymnastics, handball, judo, kayaking, netball, power lifting, roller skating, sailing, snowboarding, snowshoe running, Alpine cross country skiing, softball, short track speed skating, pool and open water swimming, table tennis, volleyball and triathlon.
On Oct. 30, 2004, President George W. Bush signed PL 108-406, the Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act. This act authorized funding for Healthy Athletes Education and Worldwide Expansion Programs. This legislation has proven to be very important to Special Olympians and those who coach them.
A study by the Center for Social Development determined that participation in physical activities through the Special Olympics help children to learn routines and approaches to learning along with how to follow rules and directions. And it encourages and gives athletes an outlet to become and remain physically fit.
The athletes could not accomplish their goals without volunteers. These include coaches, event volunteers, sponsors and donors, local community leaders, and school administrators. But most importantly are the teachers of these students, who help them be their best selves every day. Hats off to the Special Olympics, the happiest day of the year!