Special Olympics

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Nonprofit Organization
Special Olympics
Special Olympics is an international organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition. Involving more than 1.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in year-round training and competition, there is no entry fee to participate. Program costs are covered by fundraising, which include small local fundraisers, corporate sponsors, and stock exchange options.

Written by DeAirra Goss



Special Olympics is an international organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition. The Special Olympics mission remains as vital today as it did when the movement was founded in 1968. Special Olympics strives to create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people. Special Olympics offers more than 1.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities year-round training and competition in twenty-six Olympic-type summer and winter sports with no charge to participate (Shriver 2003). 

"A person with an intellectual disability is one who, from childhood, develops at a below average rate…the person experiences unusual difficulty in learning and has difficulty in applying the skills needed for daily living" (Best Buddies). More than 7.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability (formally known as mental retardation) and more than 200 causes have been identified. 

The Special Olympics story is an unprecedented global movement that, through quality sports training and competition, improves the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, and in turn the lives of everyone they touch (Shriver 2003). It allows these people to realize their full potential and develop skills to become fulfilled and productive members of their families and the communities in which they live.

The 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games opened on July 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California (Special Olympics). The city was host to 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from 165 nations competing in 25 Olympic-type sports (Special Olympics).

Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver created the "Athlete Oath" of the Special Olympics. She opened the first Special Olympics Games with these words that are still recited today before every activity: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt" (Special Olympics 2004, NP). 


Historic Roots

The concept of Special Olympics was begun in 1962 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver who started a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities at her home (Bueno 1994). She believed that people with intellectual disabilities were far more capable than commonly thought and deserved the same opportunities and experiences as others. Therefore, in June of 1962 she invited 35 boys and girls with intellectual disabilities to Camp Shriver at her home in Rockville, Maryland, to explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities (Ibid). 

Through Shriver’s promotion of the concept, her activity, Camp Shriver, became an annual event. The Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation gave grants to universities, recreation departments, and community centers (Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation). By 1968 more than 300 camps similar to Camp Shriver had started. 

The global Special Olympics movement started on July 20, 1968 when the first International Special Olympics Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois (Special Olympics 2004). Anne Burke, a recreation teacher from the Chicago, IL Park District, attended a workshop given by Dr. William Freeberg on the benefits of recreation and the fact that everyone has talents and gifts to share with others. Burke proposed holding a citywide track meet in Chicago that modeled itself after the Olympics to raise awareness of the program (Ibid). She and Freeberg developed a proposal for the Kennedy Foundation that was instantly accepted. Shriver immediately saw the potential of the idea and asked Burke to expand its scope to include more sports and athletes from across the United States. 

The Kennedy Foundation underwrote the event held on July 20, 1968 (Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation). One thousand athletes with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada competed in athletics, floor hockey and aquatics. This was the day Shriver announced the now familiar name of the new national program, the Special Olympics, that would offer people with intellectual disabilities "the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow" (Special Olympics 2004, NP).



The Special Olympics is a grass-roots movement that provides opportunities for a usually ignored group of people and the rest of society. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said to Shriver, "You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this" on the day of the first International Special Olympic Games (Ibid, NP). This has been true for the disabled, their families, their peers and the rest of society. The families of Special Olympics athletes are encouraged to play an active role in their community program, to share in the training of athletes and to assist in the public education effort needed to create greater understanding of the emotional, physical, social and spiritual needs of people with intellectual disabilities and their families (Zulewski 1994). 

Special Olympics activities take place in public, with full coverage by the media, so that athletes with intellectual disabilities may reveal to the world those special qualities of the human spirit in which they excel—skill, courage, sharing and joy (Harmer 1992). The program aspired to change the negative attitudes and misperceptions about people with intellectual disabilities, replacing stigma and rejection with an emphasis on potential, ability, and acceptance (Ibid). 

CEO Timothy Shriver says the Special Olympics will serve as the method for lasting change in the public’s attitudes toward the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in every aspect of society in every country on the planet (Shriver 2003). Shriver leads the International Board of Directors and serves together with over 5.6 million Special Olympics athletes in 172 countries to promote health, education, and a more unified world through the joy of sports (Special Olympics).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector 

Fundraising efforts provide funds for children or adults to prepare for participation in the Special Olympics. Fundraising efforts include small local fundraisers, corporate sponsors, and stock exchange options (Special Olympics 2004). The largest grass-roots fundraiser for Special Olympics is the Law Enforcement Torch Run (Special Olympics). The "Flame of Hope" consists of more than 97,000 law enforcement members who travel over 9,000 miles to the Special Olympics International Games Opening Ceremony, gathering $19.5 million dollars along the way (Ibid). 

To the greatest extent possible, Special Olympics activities are run by and involve local volunteers, from school and college age to senior citizens, to create greater opportunities for public understanding of and participation with people with intellectual disabilities (Huettig 1983). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., Special Olympics is a positive example of a grass-roots movement that has moved into a worldwide phenomenon. It combines the motivation of volunteer with fundraising and improving the lives of those less fortunate. 


Key Related Ideas 

The original reason for the creation of the Special Olympics was to provide recreational opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Up until this time, these people were placed in special schools or no school at all. They were not able to participate in school athletics or leagues because it was felt they were unable to compete (Bueno 1994). 

After success in the creation of the Special Olympics, a more important theme was introduced: inclusion for individuals with intellectual disabilities into society. This began with regular competition in the Special Olympics. Later, initiatives to inform the public of the importance of inclusion were added to the movement. The Special Olympics Get into It school-based curriculum gets word out to students that they have more in common with those with intellectual disabilities than they ever thought (Shriver 2003). In 2003, the Multinational Study of Attitudes Toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities was published; a study that proved many long-held prejudices and misconceptions about those with disabilities still linger in the world’s eyes (Ibid). 

Recently, Special Olympics has added other programs for individuals with disabilities that foster healthy athletes and leadership initiatives. The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® program provides health screenings in conjunction with competition free of charge to athletes. The Athlete Leadership Programs help athletes demonstrate leadership skills and become effective self-advocates (Special Olympics 2004). 


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Anne Burke (1944 – ):  Burke was a teacher in Chicago at the start of the Special Olympics movement.  She proposed the initial idea of having a citywide track meet modeled after the Olympics to raise awareness of Camp Shriver.  Founder Eunice Shriver saw the potential of her idea and formed it into an international movement.  Her idea grew to be what is known today as the Special Olympics International Games.
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921 –2009):  Shriver was a leader in the worldwide struggle to improve and enhance the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities for more than three decades.  She was the sister of late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  She had a long-standing commitment to people with intellectual disabilities.  She was instrumental in focusing the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation on improving the way society deals with its citizens with intellectual disabilities, and helping identify and disseminate ways to prevent the causes of intellectual disabilities (Ibid). She began a summer day camp in her backyard that grew into the modern day Special Olympics.  It influences over 1.4 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in more than 150 countries around the world today. 
  • Sargent Shriver (1915 –2011 ):  He gave 35 years of his life to the Special Olympics alongside his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver.  He served as the organizer and first Director of the Peace Corps and was a Vice Presidential candidate against Richard Nixon.  He served as Chairman of the Board of the Special Olympics for 13 years (1990-2003) creating one of the largest amateur sporting organizations in the world.  He is called the Special Olympics’ fearless leader, supporter and passionate friend (Shriver 2003). 
  • Timothy P. Shriver (1959 – ):  He is the current Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.  He joined the Movement in 1996 and has since then launched the organization’s most ambitious growth agenda, setting a goal of 2 million athletes worldwide by 2005 (Ibid).  He has also introduced many new programs that have added new dimensions to the movement.  These foster emotional health as well as physical, thus making the Special Olympics a well-rounded activity for participants. 


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Best Buddies International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment.  Founded by Anthony Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Shriver, the organization pairs middle school, high school, college students, and corporate professionals with individuals with intellectual disabilities in a mutually rewarding friendship (www.bestbuddies.org). Best Buddies also helps people with intellectual disabilities connect with others through technology as its online friendship program, e-Buddies. 
  • Chris Burke, best known as “Corky” from the hit ABC-TV show Life Goes On was an active participant of the Special Olympics prior to his TV appearances.  He was discovered after a track and field race when a TV camera recorded him celebrating his finish after the race.  It was not until a live interview that the public discovered he was celebrating a third-place finish, out of three participants.  His enthusiasm led him to be the first individual with a disability on primetime television.  After his acting career, he went on the road with a motivational speech and musical presentation with two lifelong friends, Joe and John DeMasi.  They do presentations nationwide emphasizing how to “focus on your abilities, not your disabilities” (www.chrisburke.org). 
  • The Paralympics is an international nonprofit organization that involves athletes from six disability groups who compete in 25 different sports only on the elite sport level.  These athletes have primarily physical disabilities.  Different from the Special Olympics, athletes who do not meet qualifying standards may not compete and others who are competing may lose in preliminary play (www.paralympic.org).
  • The Unified Sports Initiative is a program that combines approximately equal numbers of Special Olympics athletes and athletes without intellectual disabilities (called Partners) on sports teams for training and competition.  Age and ability matching of athletes and Partners is defined on a sport-by-sport basis; the initiative includes virtually all Special Olympics sports.  The concept of Unified Sports is to provide another level of challenge for higher ability athletes and Partners to promote equality and inclusion (www.specialolympics.org).


Reflection Question - Why is it important to have organizations such as the Special Olympics?



  • Special Olympics. Los Angeles. http://www.specialolympics.org/la2015/
  • Special Olympics. One Woman’s Vision. http://www.specialolympics.org/Sections/Who_We_Are/Eunice_Kennedy_Shriver_Biography.aspx?src=navwho
  • Special Olympics. From Backyard Camp to Global Movement: The Beginnings of Special Olympics. http://www.specialolympics.org/About_Us/History/default.htm


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.