Special Olympics International celebrates 50 years

July 20, 1968. 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from the US and Canada gather to compete in the first Special Olympics International (SOI) Summer Games. Held in Chicago, the event proves so successful that founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver pledges more games to be held in 1970 with a Biennial International Special Olympics every two years thereafter.

She was sincere.

By the 1970s, the idea had spread globally and the once-negative stigma facing athletes — and individuals — with intellectual disabilities had transformed into a positive one of inclusion.

And now, 50 years later, the Special Olympics has reached a remarkable milestone of continuous service to the community, and they’re kicking it off with the launch of the year-long Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations this July right where it started.

Although the Special Olympics 50th anniversary celebrations will mainly take place in Windy City, Special Olympics Georgia will also be participating in the festivities.

“We are in the midst of planning our presence for the event in Chicago,” says Meghan Daves, the communications and marketing manager for Special Olympics Georgia (SOGA). “We also have athletes attending the USA Games in Seattle [who] are currently training and will represent the state of Georgia in a myriad of sports including soccer and basketball.”

The Special Olympics Unified Cup will open the Chicago games. The first of its kind, the tournament will comprise a total of 24 international football and soccer teams competing for gold. Teams will consist of people from all over the world, with and without disabilities, working together and exhibiting the unity of good sportsmanship.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run follows, in which many sites in Chicago are lit with the new eternal “Flame of Hope.” Special Olympics athletes will carry the torch along a four-mile course throughout the city. This illumination of the city serves as a representation of world inclusion — a global welcoming to the international public.

And then comes a day of sports activities, games, food, exhibits, and live entertainment! This will be the Global Day of inclusion. With such an open and fun environment, everyone is invited to come out and make progress toward a more inclusive community environment on top of simply having a great time.

SOGA will hold its 30th State Summer Games on May 18–20 at Emory University. For the opening ceremony, the “Flame of Hope” will light the cauldron, after being carried by SOGA athletes in a 1,000-mile torch relay across the state. There will be a multitude of games on view for all 3,000 competitors, a few of which are flag football, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis, and volleyball.

“We have a basketball team from Hall County Parks and Recreation/Schools attending [the Chicago event],” says Meghan. “We also will be represented in soccer by our team, the Special K’s.”

SOGA is extremely excited to be hosting another year of athleticism and embracement for individuals with such disabilities. SOGA CEO Georgia Milton-Sheats states, “It is so joyful as the vans, buses, and cars roll in for the weekend filled with well-trained athletes ready for their weekend to compete and shine. I invite you and your family and friends to come out to the Games and be a Fan in the Stands!”

“We have been celebrating the 50th anniversary at our five state games this year,” Meghan continues. “During our opening ceremony, we acknowledge the 50 years of service to individuals with intellectual disabilities and honor Special Olympics with a victory dance.”

SOGA also sends its congratulations to SOI. “Special Olympics Georgia will be celebrating this incredible milestone throughout the year and [SOGA] sends a warm congratulations to SOI and the amazing accomplishments over time.”

The Special Olympics as a whole has been a pillar of hope and inclusion within numerous communities around the world.

Per their website, “The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. This gives them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community.” And for five decades, they’ve been able to exceed this mission. Thanks to them, the world is not only more aware but also more open. Year by year, event by event, the Special Olympics serves as a reminder to the world that what has been deemed as an impairment is actually, merely a difference.

People with intellectual disabilities are not incapable or incompetent — they are unique, one-of-a-kind individuals who can do anything and everything that the rest of us can. So, with their 50th birthday celebration, SOI invites you to come have fun and to bring your welcoming heart with you.