Special Olympics at 50

This website marks the 50th anniversary of the first International Special Olympics Games by presenting a brief history, and highlighting the lives of four accomplished athletes who participated in the games over the years. It is based on a display that opened at the National Museum of American History in July 2018.

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics recited this oath at the first Special Olympic International Summer Games held in Chicago in 1968. In her opening remarks she said, “…children with intellectual disabilities can be exceptional athletes and that "through sports they can realize their potential for growth.” She pledged that this new organization, Special Olympics, would offer people with intellectual disabilities everywhere “the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Fast-forward fifty years, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities: with more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries – and over a million volunteers. (2)  Their mission is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. 

The idea for Special Olympics began in Shriver’s backyard in 1962 with a group of intellectually disabled kids and camp counselors from the local high school interacting through play. For many of the children it was their first introduction to swimming, canoeing, horseback riding and structured games. Through sports, Shriver was changing the way people acted and reacted toward the intellectually disabled. By 1968, Shriver had organized the first Special Olympics International Summer Games at Soldier Field in Chicago and introduced the world to the idea of inclusion through sport.


Hat and clipboard used by Eunice Kennedy Shriver at many Special Olympics beginning at the Annual Conference of Special Olympics in 1988.

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