Nelson Mandela – Icon of Freedom and Justice – and Longtime Supporter of Special Olympics

December 05, 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, former President of South Africa, was known throughout the world for his campaign for democracy, peace and social justice. He became an important supporter of Special Olympics and the rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

Nelson Mandela at a lectern

Nelson Mandela spoke movingly at the 2003 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Dublin.  Watch Video

A Symbol of Hope

For decades, Nelson Mandela worked for equality in South Africa as an anti-apartheid revolutionary. After becoming President of South Africa, he also became a supporter of Special Olympics. Mandela described this as a time when "most South African children with disabilities lived in extreme poverty in inhospitable environments. They had very poor access to appropriate health care facilities, social services, justice, education, economic participation and early childhood development opportunities.  Often the parents themselves are poor, uneducated and lack the most basic information." 

Mandela, along with the Nelson Mandela Children's Foundation, worked with Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Special Olympics to reach out to people with intellectual disabilities and their families as well. Through this joint venture, new opportunities were given to a population that had long been ignored.

In the words of Mandela, "Only 50 years ago persons with intellectual disabilities were scorned, isolated and neglected. Today, they are able to attend school, become employed and assimilate into their local community."


Special Olympics athlete Ricardo Thornton holds the Flame of Hope with Nelson Mandela

Special Olympics athlete Ricardo Thornton, left, and Nelson Mandela carry the Flame of Hope for people with intellectual disabilities everywhere.

Inspired Determination

In 2001, Mandela returned to Robben Island -- where he had long been imprisoned -- along with Special Olympics athletes from around the world. They lit the Special Olympics Flame of Hope as a symbol to all people with intellectual disabilities that freedom will come their way. Mandela's resilience has been an inspiration, sending a message of hope for those who have been treated unjustly, those who have been isolated and those who are misunderstood.

President Mandela also joined Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver in announcing a growth campaign for Special Olympics. The goal was to reach 100,000 athletes in Africa by 2005. (That goal has since been reached and exceeded; there are now more than 145,000 Special Olympics athletes in Africa.)


Nelson Mandela posing with children

A Unifying Spirit

In 2002, Special Olympics partnered with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Foundation to host Nelson Mandela’s 84th birthday celebration in Polokwane, South Africa. The theme was Special Olympics Unified Sports. Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Chairman Timothy Shriver and an international delegation joined over 500 young people with and without intellectual disabilities for two days of unified activities, discussions and fun.

Former President Mandela also addressed the first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside the USA in 2003. At the Games Opening Ceremony in Dublin, Ireland, he said:

“Few things in life could have given me greater pleasure or brought me more honor than to be associated with the Special Olympics. I regard myself privileged to be here on this occasion. Special Olympics is a testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit. Many of you have suffered great disadvantage in your lives…you serve as an example and inspiration…you, the athletes are the ambassadors of the greatest of humankind. You inspire us to know that all obstacles to human achievement and progress are surmountable.”


230 x 300 Nelson Mandela with others posing

"A Profound Statement of Inclusion"

After watching some of the competitions, Mandela said: “When you attend a Special Olympics Games…and watch the sheer joy on faces – not just of the athletes, but more overwhelmingly among spectators – you begin to realize there is much more at work than simply athletic competition. On one hand, it is the story of years of tragedy transformed into pure joy, driven by the beauty of sheer effort. But at the same time, it is a profound statement of inclusion – that everybody matters, everybody counts, every life has value, and every person has worth.”

The Special Olympics Movement mourns Nelson Mandela, who died 5 December at the age of 95.


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