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50 years after first games, Special Olympics aims for ‘inclusion revolution’

Amid the tumult of the summer of 1968 came an event the likes of which the world had never seen: an Olympics for children with intellectual disabilities. At that first Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, about 1,000 competitors participated, showing the world they could fully participate in rituals of childhood, and sparking a change in society's attitudes. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a look at the impact of the Special Olympics, 50 years after it all began.

    What started as a small, little-noticed competition in Chicago is now a global movement. It's helped change society's attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities.

    And, as John Yang reports, their goal is inclusion far beyond the playing field.

  • John Yang:

    The summer of 1968, a nation in turmoil. Protesters marched against the war in Vietnam. Urban riots erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    But amid the tumult, an event the likes of which the world had never seen — an Olympics for children with intellectual disabilities. It was July 20. Eunice Kennedy Shriver spoke during the opening ceremony at Chicago's Soldier Field, just six weeks after her brother Robert had been killed.

  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver:

    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.

    Today, many of you will win. But, even more important, I know you will be brave. Let us begin the Olympics. Thank you.

  • John Yang:

    About 1,000 competitors from 26 states and Canada ran, swam, threw balls, jumped and showed the world that they could fully participate in the rituals of childhood.

    The event drew little notice at the time. But it sparked a change in society's attitudes toward the intellectually disabled. Today, millions of athletes train and compete in more than 100,000 events each year in some 170 nations.

    Shriver died in 2009. Her son Tim is now Special Olympics chairman. He recalls summers at Camp Shriver, a forerunner to Special Olympics. In the early 1960s, the family opened their Maryland home to special needs kids.

  • Tim Shriver:

    I remember the buses arriving, school buses, yellow school buses. They would come from institutions. I didn't know where they were coming from. We all would salute the flag and sing the national anthem together in a circle.

    I remember my backyard becoming an amusement park. You know, ponies arrived for pony rides, and coaches arrived to coach kickball games. I remember playing with campers. I mostly remember that it was fun.

  • John Yang:

    The first generation of Special Olympics athletes were born in a time when the intellectually disabled were shunned, often hidden in institutions.

    That would have been the case for Loretta Claiborne, if not for her mother's resistance. Unable to walk or talk until the age of 4, she went on to become one of Special Olympics' most decorated athletes.

  • Loretta Claiborne:

    If it wasn't for Special Olympics, I think I would be in prison or seven — six feet under.

  • John Yang:

    Claiborne got involved in Special Olympics as a teenager.

  • Loretta Claiborne:

    It's taught me about how to respect myself, how to have acceptance of myself, how to respect someone else, and it's OK to be me. It's OK to be different and to put the disability behind me and put the ability in front of me. And that's what Special Olympics taught me on the track like this.

  • John Yang:

    Claiborne has quite literally been etched into history in a painting of Eunice Shriver at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Also in the artwork? Marty Sheets, another renowned Special Olympics athlete who died in 2015. His favorite sport was golf.

    We spoke to Marty's father, Dave, at the Sligo Creek Golf Course outside Washington, which often hosts Special Olympics events.

    Born with Down syndrome, Marty went to the 1968 Chicago Games from North Carolina. It was the first time he'd ever been on a plane. But he got sick after arriving and couldn't compete. He still got a surprise from Eunice Shriver.

  • Dave Sheets:

    She walked over to his table and presented Marty with a gold medal for having worked so hard, done all of the things he needed to do to get there, but wasn't able to participate at the time. And that gold medal has been absolutely famous, as far as I'm concerned.

  • John Yang:

    That first Special Olympics began with a proposal from a young Chicago Parks gym teacher named Anne McGlone, now Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

    In 1968 she, was a college dropout with undiagnosed dyslexia. She worked with intellectually disabled children. Her experience gave her a thought.

  • Justice Anne Burke:

    I just said, well, the regular day camp has a citywide jamboree. All of Chicago gets involved in it. We should have jamboree down at Soldier Field just like that, and we can show everybody that these children have abilities. That was the spark of it.

  • John Yang:

    Burke took her proposal to Shriver.

  • Justice Anne Burke:

    She said, this is not big enough. You can't have just a citywide track meet. It has to be a large track meet for everybody. Invite everybody around the country.

    But to have this little jewel start to have its heart beat in Soldier Field, to come to full fruition about a vulnerable society, was under the radar.

  • John Yang:

    This week, the competition is back where it began. A highlight is the first global Special Olympics soccer tournament of unified teams, players both with and without intellectual disabilities.

    Cody Zimmer is a 25 year old from DeKalb, Illinois. He's been diagnosed with mild autism. This is his first time on a unified team.

  • Cody Zimmer:

    Normal — like, athletes from like schools, I normally usually have to play against them, never with them, so good learning experience.

  • John Yang:

    Do you think they're learning something too?

  • Cody Zimmer:

    Yes, learning that just because some of us in Special Olympics have disabilities doesn't make us any different from being normal people.

  • John Yang:

    Seventeen-year-old Cori Hoekstra plays on the women's team. She says she's gained a lot from playing with athletes with disabilities.

  • Cori Hoekstra:

    Each person knows certain things, doesn't know certain things, so you have to adapt and work with them. Definitely learned patience and being able to help them through it and not getting so frustrated so quickly.

  • John Yang:

    Fifty years after the first Special Olympics were held here at Chicago's Soldier Field, the organization has an ambitious goal for the next half-century.

    Tim Shriver says he wants people with intellectual disabilities fully integrated into society, not just competing alongside those without disabilities, but going to school with them, working with them, living with them. He calls it the inclusion revolution.

  • Tim Shriver:

    Revolution is strong language. It implies a challenge to the status quo. It implies an opponent. We cannot and we shouldn't tolerate business or schools or health care institutions or sporting organizations that say, we're open for most, but not for you. Those days must end.

  • John Yang:

    Shriver hopes no one mistakes the joy of the Games for the seriousness of the mission.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Chicago.

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