11 Facts About Special Olympics

Medals from the 1995 Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Connecticut.
Medals from the 1995 Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Connecticut. / Rick Stewart / Allsport / Getty Images

The first modern Olympics took place in 1896; the Paralympics debuted in 1960. Not long after, another international sporting competition began: Special Olympics. This global organization is dedicated to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. And while Special Olympics is known for its World Games that occur every two years, the organization also provides support for these athletes and their families all throughout the year, in the form of training, health screenings, and more.

Read on to find out more about the history of Special Olympics and how it impacts the lives of these athletes.

1. Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy was inspired by her sister.

Eunice Kennedy (later Eunice Kennedy-Shriver) was born on July 10, 1921, and was the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy. While her brothers embarked upon impactful political careers (which she helped support), it was her sister, Rosemary, who inspired Eunice’s life’s work.

Rosemary Kennedy was born with an apparent intellectual disability in 1918, which included learning difficulties and violent mood swings that grew progressively worse as she got older. At the age of 23, her father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Sr., had her brought in for an experimental prefrontal lobotomy that doctors said would help. But according to the JFK Library, the operation left her "permanently incapacitated," and Rosemary was then sent to an institution in Wisconsin, where she lived until her death in 2005. Rosemary's condition and institutionalization were hidden from the public for decades, until Eunice penned an essay on the subject in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962. (The full story of the lobotomy wouldn't come out until 1987.)

In the essay, she wrote about how close she was to her sister, for whom she recounted, “winning at anything always brought a marvelous smile to her face.” She went on to urge the public to destigmatize intellectual disabilities. The article made a splash, but Eunice was just getting started.

2.  Special Olympics grew out of a summer camp.

Eunice Kennedy
Eunice Kennedy Shriver at Camp Shriver. / Courtesy of Special Olympics

With limited summer activities available at the time for children with special needs, Shriver decided that her first initiative was to open a summer camp right in her own backyard. She decided to host Camp Shriver on the grounds of her farm in Maryland and called up local schools and clinics in order to find children who might want to come. Her first group included 34 kids who spent their time riding horses, playing sports, and generally having fun. Over the years that she ran Camp Shriver, the attendance grew to around 100 happy campers.

3. The first Special Olympics took place in 1968.

A medal from the 1968 Special Olympics in Chicago.
A medal from the 1968 Special Olympics in Chicago. / Courtesy of Special Olympics

Anne McGlone Burke fostered similar ambitions of creating spaces where young people with intellectual disabilities could thrive through sports. Burke worked as a physical education teacher at the Chicago Park District, which was the recipient of a $10,000 grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation to begin a recreation program for students with special needs. After attending a lecture about the benefits of physical activity for children with intellectual disabilities, Burke decided to plan a citywide track meet for her students. 

Burke traveled to Washington, D.C. to secure Shriver's endorsement and financial support, but Shriver thought the vision could expand into a multi-sport event that included kids from across the country. The result of their collaboration was the inaugural Special Olympics, which took place in Chicago’s Soldier Field in July 1968 and hosted 1000 athletes from across the U.S. and Canada.

4. Special Olympics athletes represent more than 170 countries.

What began in America soon expanded to become a global movement. By the second Games, France had joined in on the fun. By the fourth, 10 countries sent athletes. Since then, the events have grown exponentially, and today, athletes from more than 170 countries gather to compete.

5. The first Special Olympics Winter Games took place in 1977.

After nearly a decade of summer sports competitions, Special Olympics expanded to a new season. The Winter Games, which were hosted for the first time in 1977 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, introduced a host of new sports to the program. More than 500 athletes came to compete, and several major networks carried coverage of the events. Today, the Special Olympics Winter Games take place every four years.

6. Athletes compete in more than 30 sports at Special Olympics.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1972.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver celebrating with an athlete at the 1972 Special Olympics. / Courtesy of Special Olympics

Inspired by both winter and summer Olympic events, Special Olympics features everything from alpine skiing to triathlon. If you come to watch, you’ll spot plenty of typical Olympic sports, like swimming, basketball, and figure skating, as well as some unique to Special Olympics, including bowling, competitive cheer, and snowshoeing.

7. There are more than 5 million Special Olympics athletes.

From weight-lifters to speed-skaters, 5.6 million people participate in Special Olympics programs through training events and competitions held all year round. Anyone over the age of 8 with intellectual disabilities is eligible to compete, and a full third of athletes are 22 or older.

8. The Special Olympic Board of Directors includes Loretta Claiborne and Michelle Kwan.

From Harvard Law professors to famous athletes, Special Olympics has an impressive array of dedicated advocates. The most successful U.S. figure skater of all time, Michelle Kwan serves as treasurer for the organization, and Loretta Claiborne is vice-chair. As a Special Olympics athlete herself, Claiborne has run marathons, speaks four languages, has a black belt in karate, and travels the world as a motivational speaker.

9. The 2023 Special Olympics will take place in Berlin.

The first Winter Games held outside of the U.S. took place in Salzburg and Schladming, Austria, in 1993 [PDF], while the first Summer Games abroad were held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003. Since then, host nations have included China, Japan, Greece, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.

In June 2023, the Summer Games will kick off in Berlin and will mark the first time Germany has hosted a Special Olympics World Games. The event will include 26 sports over nine days, plus an opening and closing ceremony. Seven thousand athletes are expected to compete. 

But the worldwide events are just part of the Special Olympics events held each year. On June 5, 2022, Orlando, Florida, will host the U.S. Games, where athletes from across the country compete in events such as golf, softball, surfing, and more. Then in July, Detroit, Michigan, will host the Special Olympics Unified Cup, a soccer tournament featuring athletes from up to 31 nations.

10. Many famous athletes have supported Special Olympics.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. / David Livingston/GettyImages

For decades, Special Olympics have drawn support from professional athletes who recognize the importance of building more inclusive spaces for competition. Starting in the 1970s, Muhammad Ali threw his support behind the cause, and even opened the 2003 ceremonies in Dublin, Ireland. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also lit the torch. Today’s athlete ambassadors include Olympic champions like Michael Phelps, NBA All-Stars like Damian Lillard, and many more.

11. Special Olympics does more than just sports.

What started as a summer camp has expanded far beyond a place for kids to play games. Today, the organization provides year-round support and advocates for better access to social services and health care for people with intellectual disabilities. Since 1997, Special Olympics athletes have had access to free health screenings at events in an effort to correct the gap in health care access between those with intellectual disabilities and the rest of the population. Representatives also make an annual visit to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and advocate for the needs of Americans with intellectual disabilities. 

Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis summed it up best in a 2020 interview: “It’s about inclusion, communities learning about our athletes and what the meaning of inclusion is, acceptance and respect for all people."