Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who passed away recently, was founder of the Special Olympics and worked tirelessly throughout her life promoting the games.

Eileen Good spoke to Matt English, CEO of Special Olympics Ireland about her legacy and the games in Ireland.


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Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver with a Special Olympics China gymnast at the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921 – 2009)

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It was Shrivers beliefs and vision that have changed the lives of millions, brought together war-torn nations, helped to create a world of acceptance for all, and increased the understanding of the largest disability population in the world. She has done this through a vision that was born in her own backyard and the creation of Special Olympics nearly 40 years ago.

Life in the Shadows

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 200 million people, or 3 percent of the worlds population, are individuals with intellectual disabilities the largest of all disability groups. The occurrence of intellectual disabilities knows no boundaries; it cuts across lines of race, ethnicity, education level, social class and economic background.

Although this population exists in every community, it is nearly invisible and is considered one of the most neglected segments of society worldwide. At best, people with intellectual disabilities fall well below the social average in areas of education, health and employment and they face an uphill battle for independence and for social and occupational integration. At worst, they lead lives of rejection, abuse and exclusion. Even today, in some countries people with intellectual disabilities are warehoused in institutions where they are caged like animals, discarded by society, and forgotten by virtually everyone, living in a nightmare of physical and emotional pain.

Before 1960, many parents of people born with intellectual disabilities were told that their child would never learn and were even encouraged to send their children away to an institution where they were often mistreated, neglected and malnourished. Even today, there are still reports of horrible circumstances surrounding the care of people with intellectual disabilities in assisted living situations, but through Shrivers tireless efforts, she continues to make changes.

Into the Light

It was Shrivers life mission to create opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities. Before 1960, there was very few such opportunities, but from her sister Rosemary Shriver learned the potential of people with intellectual disabilities. Shriver knew that people with intellectual disabilities could enjoy sports and from sports learn the fundamental building blocks and skills of life.

Shortly after her brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected President of the United States, Shriver began her campaign for the rights of and respect for people with intellectual disabilities. Her courage and determination to reveal one of the Kennedy familys most closely guarded secrets that Rosemary, her sister and, more significantly, the Presidents sister, had an intellectual disability proved to be her most lasting impact. Shriver convinced her family to let her go public with the story. In September 1962, she wrote an article about Rosemary which was published in the Saturday Evening Post. Some call the article one of the most important contributions the Kennedys made to the nation.

In 1961, Shriver helped to establish the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. The following year, she developed the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and created the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Awards in Mental Retardation.

In 1962, Shriver also started Camp Shriver, a summer sports camp for people with intellectual disabilities. Set in her own backyard in Rockville, Maryland, Shriver provided opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to test their capabilities.

She was the energy behind changes in Civil Service regulations that, in 1964, allowed those with intellectual disability to be hired on the basis of ability rather than test scores. In 1967, a network of university-affiliated facilities and intellectual disability research centers at major medical schools across the United States were established under the auspices of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and her leadership. Later, centers for the study of medical ethics were established at Harvard and Georgetown Universities.

Her most celebrated accomplishment was in 1968, when she established Special Olympics as the first systematic effort to provide sports training and athletic competition for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Today, more than 2.5 million athletes in more than 180 countries compete worldwide in 30 Olympic-type sports. Most importantly, she created a movement that has changed the lives of millions and opened doors that were once sealed shut.

Special Olympics is not one country’s movement. It is global!

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who attended the First International Special Olympics Games in 1968, said it best, You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this. He was correct; the world has not been the same. Driven by the heroic determination of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, it was clear that Special Olympics had a vision that could capture the world’s attention.

During the early years, Special Olympics organically grew stronger and stronger in communities throughout the United States, nurtured by families and volunteers, then spread to other countries. With the assistance of Shrivers husband Sargent Shriver, Special Olympics was introduced in places such as Russia, China and Africa, where it was embraced as a means to serve people with intellectual disabilities, but also a way bring the world together around a common cause.

As Special Olympics grew around the world, World Games were established which brought thousands of athletes from more than 100 nations together in sport. The unity between countries inspired by Special Olympics transcended not just geographic borders, but political barriers as well.

In 1989, warring factions in Beirut, Lebanon, voluntarily agreed to a cease-fire to allow for the first Lebanese Special Olympics Games with 250 athletes and 1,000 volunteers. At the 1993 World Winter Games, 36 black and white athletes from South Africa competed on the same team for the first time. In 1994, athletes from Jordan traveled across the river to Israel to participate in Special Olympics in that country, bringing Jews and Arabs together. In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued the first Papal Decree in support of any sports event, Special Olympics. In 1996, in spite of long-standing political and religious differences, law enforcement officers from Ireland and Northern Ireland participated shoulder-to-shoulder in a Torch Run for Special Olympics.

Special Olympics continues to reach out to areas torn by strife and conflict, helping to build bridges and be a catalyst for social change. Special Olympics is a training ground for volunteerism and, as such, has become a catalytic force for the creation of civil society, citizen engagement and community empowerment. Its impact can be seen in places such as Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the movements proudest moments came in August 2005, when Afghanistan held its first-ever national Special Olympics Games at Kabuls Olympic Stadium. Over 300 athletes competed, including 80 female athletes. As Special Olympics Asia Pacific Managing Director Troy Griesen said, Life in Afghanistan can be grueling for even the heartiest souls. But if you are a person with an intellectual disability, add on another couple layers of misery: isolation and rejection. These Games and Special Olympics in general fill a void for people with intellectual disabilities in Afghanistan.

Today, Special Olympics is a global movement as compelling and meaningful in every country as in any one. Special Olympics is no longer an export from one land to another, but is rather the full and rightful movement of any group of athletes, family members and volunteers who chose to bring the movement to life. With more than 180 active and growing countries, Special Olympics is a global movement united in one vision to build a world without: a world of respect without requirements, victory without conquest, pride without prejudice a world of acceptance for all.

Recognized for Her Accomplishments

As the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver received numerous awards and honorary degrees. Here is a sampling of these awards:

  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Reagan, March 1984
  • The Order of the Smile bestowed by the Children of Poland, May 1989
  • 1991 Sword of Loyola Award – Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois (Shrivers husband, Sargent Shriver, also received a Sword of Loyala Award at the same time)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award, October 1993
  • Inducted into National Womens Hall of Fame, July 1998
  • 2004 International Olympic Committee Award
  • 2005 Points of Light The Extra Mile Award
  • 2006 Simons Foundation Award
  • 2006 New Freedom Award from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Honorary Doctorate Degrees at Yale University, Princeton, and others