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History of Special Olympics

From a backyard summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities to a global movement, Special Olympics has been changing lives and attitudes for 45 years.

Mrs. Shriver gently guides a child into the pool for a swimming lesson

First Steps. Eunice Kennedy Shriver guided children with intellectual disabilities into sports at her Camp Shriver summer camps, which were a forerunner of Special Olympics. Read here for more on events leading to the founding of Special Olympics. 

How It All Began

It all began in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. She also saw that many children with intellectual disabilities didn’t even have a place to play. She decided to take action.

Soon, her vision began to take shape, as she held a summer day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard. The goal was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities – and not dwell on what they could not do. See a slideshow about the camp

Throughout the 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver continued her pioneering work -- both as the driving force behind President John F. Kennedy's White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities and as the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Her vision and drive for justice eventually grew into the Special Olympics movement. Read more about events leading to the founding of Special Olympics.

About Intellectual Disability

Special Olympics is a global movement of people who want to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. But what are intellectual disabilities? Learn More

19-20 July 1968

The first International Special Olympics Summer Games are held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, USA. 

A thousand people with intellectual disabilities from 26 U.S. states and Canada compete in track and field and swimming. See a slideshow about the first Games

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver pose

Powerful Partnership. Sargent Shriver was more than Eunice Kennedy Shriver's husband. As a team, they steered Special Olympics in new directions. A new biography of Sargent Shriver written by his son Mark provides insights about the man and his long history of public service.LEARN MORE

December 1971

The U.S. Olympic Committee gives Special Olympics official approval as one of only two organizations authorized to use the name “Olympics” in the United States.  

5-11 February 1977

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, USA hosts the 1st International Special Olympics Winter Games. More than 500 athletes compete in skiing and skating events. CBS, ABC and NBC television networks cover the Games. See a slideshow about Special Olympics World Games

June 1981

Wichita, Kansas (USA) Police Chief Richard LaMunyon launches a Special Olympics awareness campaign that becomes the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics. The Torch Run grows into the movement's largest grassroots fundraiser, raising $30 million each year. 

September 1986

The United Nations launches the International Year of Special Olympics. The theme is “Special Olympics—Uniting the World.”  

October 1987

“A Very Special Christmas,” a benefit album featuring holiday music by top rock 'n' roll performers, is released worldwide. It is produced by Jimmy and Vicki Iovine of A&M Records and Bobby Shriver, with all earnings going to Special Olympics. More than 2 million records, compact discs and cassette tapes are sold. 

February 1988

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) signs a historic agreement with Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver officially endorsing and recognizing Special Olympics.  

July 1988

Special Olympics Unified Sports® is launched at the annual Special Olympics Conference in Reno, Nevada, and Lake Tahoe, California. Bowling, volleyball and softball are the first sports included. 

20-27 March 1993

The 5th Special Olympics World Winter Games are hosted in Salzburg and Schladming, Austria. These are the first World Games held outside North America.  See a slideshow about Special Olympics World Games

1-9 July 1995

Several new initiatives make their debut at the 9th Special Olympics World Summer Games. These include the Host Town Program, Healthy Athletes®, and Research and Policy Symposia. In addition, for the first time, people with intellectual disabilities serve as certified officials.

January 1997

Healthy Athletes becomes an official Special Olympics initiative, providing health-care services to Special Olympics athletes worldwide. The program includes free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education. Learn about Healthy Athletes

20 July 1998

Special Olympics celebrates its 30th anniversary with the introduction of the first Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers. These 12 remarkable men and women travel the world as spokespeople for the movement over a two-year term.

17 December 1998

U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton host “A Very Special Christmas from Washington, D.C.” It's the first time the White House hosts a Special Olympics gala and the first time that artists from “A Very Special Christmas” album series gather together to perform. In 2000, President and Mrs. Clinton host “A Very Special Christmas” for the second time. Learn more about the record series


The “Campaign for Special Olympics” sets unprecedented goals to increase athlete participation by 1 million and to raise more than $120 million over a five-year period. This global campaign changes the face of the Special Olympics movement.  

18-22 May 2000

As part of the “Campaign for Special Olympics,” actor Arnold Schwarzenegger joins Special Olympics athletes to light the Flame of Hope at the Great Wall of China. They launch the Special Olympics China Millennium March and begin the most ambitious growth campaign in the movement’s history. China pledges to increase its number of athletes from 50,000 to 500,000 by 2005.  

May 20-23 2001

The first-ever Global Athlete Congress takes place in The Hague, Netherlands. Special Olympics athletes from every region in the world come together to discuss the future of the Special Olympics movement. Despite differences in language, culture, age and gender they hold discussions, challenge existing ideas and vote on new resolutions.

The president of South Africa competes at the 2010 Unity Cup in South Africa.

The Unity Cup, 2010. The president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, right, competes with Special Olympics athletes and celebrity footballers in the Unity Cup, sponsored by Coca-Cola. 

12-14 July 2001

Cape Town, Johannesburg and Sun City, South Africa host Special Olympics African Hope. Former President Nelson Mandela, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Special Olympics athletes gather to light the Flame of Hope and kick off the largest Law Enforcement Torch Run through the streets of Cape Town. The event generates awareness of the movement throughout the continent. It also launches a major push to reach 100,000 new athletes in Africa by 2005.  

October 2001

Special Olympics develops and distributes So Get Into It® kits for students with and without disabilities to schools and teachers worldwide at no cost. They  teach young people about intellectual disabilities while empowering them to “be the difference.” The lessons highlight values of inclusion, acceptance and respect. 

19-20 July 2002

The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund partners with Special Olympics to host an annual birthday celebration for its founder and chairperson, former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. The event also helps Special Olympics spotlight its Unified Sports® program.  

Three female athletes share a victory hug at the 2003 World Summer Games in Ireland

Ireland in 2003. The Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland, drew athletes with intellectual disabilities from countries scattered all around the world. 

21-29 June 2003

Ireland hosts the first Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held outside the United States. 5,500 athletes participate in this landmark event. It is the world's largest sporting event in 2003, capturing the hearts and imaginations of the Irish people.  See a slideshow about Special Olympics World Games

20 June 2003

Special Olympics releases “The Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities.” It's the most comprehensive global study thorough ever on this subject. The report offers valuable insight into how people around the world view the roles and capabilities of persons with intellectual disabilities in the workplace, classroom and daily social life.

30 October 2004

U.S. President George W. Bush signs the “Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act."  This gives $15 million every year for five years to Special Olympics programs. The funding goes to  initiatives that encourage greater respect and understanding for people with intellectual disabilities. This marks the first time that Special Olympics secures support through legislation.

23 December 2005

"The Ringer," a Farrelly Brothers film starring Johnny Knoxville, opens in theaters throughout Canada and the United States. The film includes appearances from more than 150 Special Olympics athletes. Its producers work with Special Olympics to challenge destructive stereotypes and negative thinking about people with intellectual disabilities.  


Special Olympics surpasses its goal of doubling the number of athletes that participate worldwide to 2.5 million participants. With sports at the core, the movement stands as a leader in advancing rights and opportunities and policy change for its athletes in 165 countries worldwide.

10 June 2006

U.S. President and Mrs. George W. Bush host a tribute dinner at the White House to honor Special Olympics for its unprecedented growth over the past five years. The event also celebrates the 86th birthday of founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.  

October 2007

The city of Shanghai, China, hosts the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games. The Games are broadcast internationally on a vast scale. Participation is at a record high -- bringing together  more than 7,500 athletes from 164 countries participating. See a slideshow about Special Olympics World Games

July 2008

Special Olympics celebrates its 40th anniversary as a true global movement, with nearly 3 million athletes in more than 180 countries.  

February 2009

The Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, USA, draws nearly 2,000 athletes from nearly 100 countries. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits and declares special needs advocacy "a civil rights movement."

May 2009

The U.S. National Portrait Gallery unveils a historic portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The painting is the first portrait the Gallery has ever commissioned of an individual who has not served as a U.S. President or First Lady. 

11 August 2009

The founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, dies at her family home in Massachusetts. Letters and messages celebrating her contribution to humanity pour in from world leaders and people from around the world. See

November 2009

"A Very Special Christmas 7" is released, infusing the record-breaking Christmas record series with the energy and talent of a new generation of music stars. See

June 2010

The first Special Olympics Global Congress is held in Marrakech, Morocco. Hundreds of Special Olympics leaders from around the world gather to chart the next five years of work. See a slideshow about the Congress 

Cyclists ride near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, as part of the first Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge running, walking and biking event

2010's Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge. Held in Washington, D.C., it was a daylong celebration of sport in honor of Special Olympics' founder and featured running, walking and biking events plus music and games. 

September 2010

The first global Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day is held in more than 100 countries to celebrate the vision of the founder of Special Olympics. The event also aims to increase the momentum of the Special Olympics movement. See photos from the day

October 2010

Officials announce that the next Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, on 29 January-5 February 2013.

January 2011

The Special Olympics movement mourns the death of Sargent Shriver, husband of late founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He was also a longtime Special Olympics President and Chairman of the Board Emeritus.  

June-July 2011

The 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games are held in Athens, Greece. More than 6,000 athletes from 170 countries take part.  

September 2011

Officials announce that the next Special Olympics World Summer Games will be held in the United States for the first time in 16 years. Los Angeles, California will welcome the World Games from July 25 to Aug. 2, 2015.

February 2012

The National Basketball Association and Special Olympics, with the support of The Coca-Cola Company, hold the first annual NBA Cares Unified Sports Basketball game. The event takes place as part of the 2013 NBA All-Star weekend in Houston, Texas, USA.

May 2012

Special Olympics' global reach hits a new milestone, with more than 4 million athletes participating in programs around the world.

October 2012

A news conference announces that the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held in Graz and Schladming in Styria, Austria. This marks a return to Austria, site of the first Special Olympics World Games held outside the United States (in 1993).

December 2012

The 'A Very Special Christmas' series -- the most successful benefit recording series in music history -- marks its 25th anniversary with the release of two new albums. The series has raised approximately $116 million and given crucial help to Special Olympics athletes and programs around the world, including Cambodia, Laos, Timor Leste, Lesotho, as well as China, Russia, Uganda and the USA. 

January 2013

Opening of the first Special Olympics Global Development Summit. The event brings together government officials, human rights activists, as well as leaders from the sports and business worlds to explore ways to "End the Cycle of Poverty and Exclusion for People with Intellectual Disabilities." The summit is held as part of the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2013 in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea. More than 2,300 athletes from 100 countries take part in the 2013 World Winter Games, held from 29 January to 5 February. Read more about the summit

February 2013

Healthy Athletes breaks a new record at the World Winter Games in PyeongChang: more athletes receive free health screenings in a single day during the 2013 games than at any other time in the history of the Healthy Athletes program: 2,569 screenings were provided on 1 February alone.

March 2013

The Special Olympics program in Bharat (India) welcomes its one-millionth registered athlete.

May 2013

The latest annual census shows Special Olympics reaching new milestones in growth: more than 4.2 million athletes and 70,000 competitions around the world.


October 2013

Janet Froetscher is named Chief Executive Officer of the global Special Olympics movement. Dr. Timothy P. Shriver continues as Special Olympics Chairman, working with Froetscher and movement leaders to advance the Special Olympics mission around the world.

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“[Eunice Kennedy Shriver] will be remembered ... as an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation - and our world - that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit. ”

U.S. President Barack Obama 

“You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, observing the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968 

Her voice will echo each time the oath is recited, her fire will burn each time the flame is lit and her legacy will live and grow through every athlete in every competition, daily, around the world.”

Nelson Mandela, a former President of South Africa, in a letter paying tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver after her death on August 11, 2009 


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