Special Olympics has grown from humble beginnings

At the time of its inception in 1968, Special Olympics was a program designed to provide an athletic outlet for people in the United States who had intellectual disabilities.  It has grown to become one of the largest athletic organizations in the world with over 4.4 million athletes, 1 million coaches and 226 programs in 170 countries.

Special Olympics was started by Eunice Shriver Kennedy and her husband, Sargent Shriver, to address the lack of access to organized sports for people with intellectual disabilities.  Many of the original 1,000 participants suffered from Down’s Syndrome.

In the past, many of these people were isolated from society and often placed in institutions.  This restricted any meaningful physical activity and socialization with peers.

Participants must qualify by being certified by an agency or health professional as having intellectual disabilities, cognitive delays or significant learning or vocational problems.

Special Olympics has grown from summer sports to winter sports with a variety of team competitions.  World games are held every two years and vary between summer and winter venues. 

Unified sports teams consist of participants who have intellectual disabilities with those who do not.  This provides another step toward more inclusive sports participation. There are now half a million participants in unified sports worldwide.

It is clear that periodic training culminating in a single event is not sufficient for athletic fitness.  This has lead to establishing Unified Sports Fitness Clubs where fitness activities are measured and studied.

“The success of Special Olympics over the past 46 years is based on its ability to evolve with the changing needs of intellectually impaired athletes,” states Mr. Beau Doherty, president of Special Olympics Connecticut.

Special Olympics has become part of the fabric of worldwide sports by including athletes who were previously excluded.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN.  He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at agalessi@uchc.edu

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