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THIS year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics, a unique institution as full of humanity and inspiration as was its founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of J.F. Kennedy. The story of Special Olympics began in 1962, when Eunice, whose sister Rosemary had intellectual disability (ID), started a day camp for children with ID at her home in Maryland, breaking social taboos at a time when people with ID were called imbeciles and institutionalised.
Herself a formidable athlete, she believed that the quality of life of people with ID could be improved through physical exercise, competition and fair play.
Eunice was the driving force behind president Kennedy’s commitment to improving the lives of people with ID. He created set up a White House panel of scientists and experts for a national action programme to combat mental retardation. It was through her advocacy for justice that groundbreaking legislation was enacted in 1963 ensuring federal funding for the treatment and rehabilitation of persons with ID in America.
In 1964, Dr James Oliver became a consultant to the Shriver camp. His seminal study published in 1958 in the British Journal of Educational Psychology showed that physical exercise and sports activities for children with ID had not only positive effects on their personality but also affected their educational outcomes. In July 1968, Eunice organised the first International Special Olympics Summer Games in Chicago. Over 200 competitive events including races, swimming, jumping, and water polo were introduced.
Most parents here haven’t explored the potential of sports.
Today, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with ID, providing year-round activities in 182 countries, with biennial international events held for summer and winter games. Like the International Paralympic Committee, Special Olympics are recognised by the International Olympic Committee but are held separately.
As health issues of people with disabilities are generally neglected, the Healthy Athletes initiative was introduced in 1997, offering free health information, screening and treatment to Special Olympics athletes. This programme has made Special Olympics into the largest public health organisation in the world, benefiting over a million people with ID.
Through the humanising power of sports, people with ID are able to discover themselves, find hidden strengths and discover new their potential. They are able to shake off their frustrations and sorrow, moving out of ‘the shadows’ when they enter the universal world of sports. They become ambassadors for all persons with disabilities, inspiring communities and nations to understand disability and embrace inclusion.
The Special Olympics movement changed the world of segregation, isolation and persecution of people with ID, opening up the doors for their inclusion in every sphere of life, giving them dignity and opportunity. It has attracted the support of thousands of volunteers, celebrities and heads of states.
It also pioneered the concept of unified sports, bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates, based on Eunice’s faith in humanity — that training together and playing together can create awareness and empathy, paving a path to friendship and acceptance. Many recent studies have documented how much her values have helped to change social attitudes towards people with ID.
The rituals and symbols of Special Olympics, such as the Law Enforcement torch run, firing up the cauldron to mark the beginning of international games, developing the organisation logo and the athlete’s oath apparently used by the Roman gladiators and introduced by Eunice at the inaugural Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968 — ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt’ — are replete with stories of dreams, passionate endeavour and the joy of selfless hard work.
In Pakistan, the Special Olympics was founded in 1989. Today, there are more than 25,000 registered athletes and unified partners, about 2,000 coaches and more than 3,000 volunteers offering a wide range of programmes for young children as well as adults, involving their families and grooming leaders and mentors. It provides year-round training in all kinds of sports across the country in different cities and provinces, and participates in almost all international events of Special Olympics.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, most parents have not really explored the potential of sports as a therapy for their children with intellectual disabilities. A visit to Special Olympics’ offices or stadiums should be on their agenda. The commitment of its officer bearers, their services, openness and accessibility all match the ideals of its founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The writer is a former federal secretary.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2018