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Tim Shriver Discusses His Mother, Eunice Shriver, and the Special Olympics

July 12, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Some 3,000 athletes competed in Ames, Iowa, earlier this month in the Special Olympics USA National Games. In attendance, along with 30,000 other spectators, was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the driving force behind the event.

She founded the Special Olympics in 1968, to provide sports instruction and athletic competition for mentally-disabled adults and children. She presided over the first games that year.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER, Founder, Special Olympics: … in Ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

RAY SUAREZ: Those words now form the Special Olympian Oath. To date, over 2 million competitors, from more than 150 countries, have competed in the games.

Shriver’s lifelong activism on the part of the mentally disabled stems in part from personal experience. She was the fifth of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s nine children. Her older sister, Rosemary, was reportedly mildly retarded. She underwent a lobotomy at age 23 and was incapacitated for the rest of her life.

Rosemary was largely kept out of the public eye, but in 1962, Eunice Shriver wrote a candid article about Rosemary and mental retardation in an issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The article is widely credited with easing the social stigma associated with mental retardation.

Shriver was in the Oval Office in 1963 when her brother, President John F. Kennedy, signed civil service regulations making it easier for people with intellectual disabilities to work.

Throughout the last four decades, she’s been an ardent champion for the mentally disabled. Her tireless work on their behalf has been recognized nationally and internationally.

Among her many honors is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She got it from Ronald Reagan in 1984. This month, on her 85th birthday, President Bush and Mrs. Bush hosted a black-tie dinner at the White House in recognition of Shriver’s lifelong work.

EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER: Let us not forget that we have miles to go to overturn the prejudice and oppression facing the world’s 180 million citizens with intellectual disability.

But for what joy, for together as we go forward, all of us, may you each continue to spend your lives in this noble battle. May you overturn ignorance; may you challenge indifference at every turn; and may you find great joy in the new daylight of the great athletes of the Special Olympics.

Thank you, and God bless us all.

The beginnings of a movement

RAY SUAREZ: She's still the honorary chairman of the Special Olympics, although her son, Tim, is now chairman of the board. I spoke with him recently at the Special Olympics headquarters in Washington.

Well, Tim, let's start at the very beginning. Is there a "eureka" moment when your mother realizes that a Special Olympics is possible?

TIM SHRIVER, Chairman, Special Olympics: I think the first and most important "eureka" moment probably came when she was a child herself, a sibling, and with her sister, Rosemary.

And she tells wonderful stories about, in her teenaged years, sailing with her sister in a very competitive family, where one was expected to come back with first place finish in a sailboat race, and going out with Rosemary and realizing right there and then that she could sail, that she could pull in the jib, that she could crew.

I think really in those early days, playing touch football, just being in a family, a large family, where one child had some special needs, my mother knew from that experience -- not from knowledge, not from reading in a book, but from her heart -- that her sister could do things, and particularly do things in sports.

I think that carried her through a lot of disappointment, through a lot of frustration, through a lot of indifference. I think it sustained her when she went around in the 1950s and saw institutions where people were being warehoused like animals, when she met with politicians who had no interest, when she talked to researchers who had no protocols, no studies.

I think she was sustained, as she could always go back to that experience with her own sister, and say, "I know we can do better. I know there is potential here. I have to just continue to fight to find people who will help me realize it."

RAY SUAREZ: But, you know, when we look at it through the lenses of 2006, it seems like just a great thing to do. But looking back to 1966, when she was trying to get the first games off the ground, this is before mainstreaming, before the idea that people with mental disabilities are full participants or can be in a lot of daily life.

TIM SHRIVER: Well, if you look at her camps -- you know, I was a child in the '60s. I was born in 1959. But I remember very clearly -- I don't know exactly what age, whether it was five or six years old -- I remember looking out my window in the morning and seeing people come from institutions, get off yellow school buses, empty out into my backyard, raise the American flag, sing songs, and then fan out for kickball, or for swimming, or for horseback riding in this beautiful Maryland farm.

It took me a long time to realize that that wasn't normal. You know, to have a hundred or so young people with intellectual disabilities in your backyard wasn't a normal summer activity. But she was doing that because she went to those places and she saw the feted institutions. She saw the neglect. She saw people sitting there, and she knew they were young people.

What do young people want to do? They want to play. They want to go to summer camp. They want to play kickball. They want to develop a teammate.

So I think that the insight was very simple. And as most brilliant things are, we can see in retrospect their simplicity. But at their core, there's just a fundamental human insight that everyone wants a chance, and that play and sport and physical activity are as common a goal and a joy for a person with a special need as they are for anybody else.

A distance left to travel

RAY SUAREZ: After the first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, was it clear there were going to be others? Were there early birth pangs that made it tough to get this to become a regular American institution, worldwide institution?

TIM SHRIVER: I mean, if you look at the Chicago games, the most remarkable part of it to me is that you have a stadium of 80,000 people that's empty. And if you look at the World Summer Games in 2003 in Ireland, you have a stadium of 80,000 people where you couldn't get a seat.

That transition was not easy, and it remains not easy. I think it's important for us to remember: It remains not easy. To fill those seats in 1968 was unthinkable. Just to get the stadium was the big challenge.

Over the years, I think the great story is the story of volunteerism, is the story of people like Lions' Clubs volunteers, and J.C. Clubs volunteers, and women's groups, and men's groups, and church-related organizations, religious institutions who said, "We'll run a small event here. We're in Boise, Idaho. We're in Billings, Montana. We're in Topeka, Kansas. We'll run an event here. We'll raise a couple thousand dollars here."

And by itself, it kind of bottom-up created itself. That is the story of the development of Special Olympics. It's asking people and tapping into the best in them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I think it might be fair to say that a lot of those dragons in the United States are slain. People with intellectual disabilities do live different lives than they did 40 and 50 years ago, but if you go to the places where Special Olympics is trying to move forward now, Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia, it's 50 years ago in those places.

TIM SHRIVER: It's 50 years ago in those places, and I would just say that we have a distance to go in this country. Most children with special needs, when they go to a regular school, report their greatest struggle is against attitudes of other children.

Still there's name-calling. Still people use the word "retard" on the playground or in the lunchroom to make fun of someone. Still we have a recent Gallup poll that said that 62 percent of Americans don't want a child with an intellectual disability in their child's school. That's in the 21st century.

When you look around the world, particularly in the developing world, the tragedy is daily. It's painful, and it's a crisis. We have people dying by the thousands from starvation and malnutrition in institutions, people undernourished throughout the world in these environments where no one cares, where no political leader comes, where no parent is invited to join, where no volunteer is invited to enter.

We've seen these places. I've seen them all over the world, and they're shocking in the sadness. And yet, maybe sports -- maybe sports is a vehicle to open these doors. We like to think so.

We hope in this movement in Special Olympics that we don't do just sport; we do sport to change people, to change attitudes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Tim Shriver, thanks a lot.

TIM SHRIVER: Thank you, Ray.