The Kennedy’s will go down in history as perhaps the most famous family to have ever ventured into Washington. John, Robert and Ted resonated with a new era of US politics in the early 1960s, but Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of the three, created one of her own, not in politics but sport.
 
In a decade of drastic social reform for minorities, one in which the culture across the landscape shifted dramatically, the introduction of the Special Olympics in 1968 hid under the radar, but no doubt was equally as effective in bringing a targeted community out of the abyss.
 
Shut away in institutions or segregated schools those with intellectual disabilities were labelled ‘mentally retarded’. So, Shriver created a vision where children could realise their potential and not dwell on what they could not do. In 1962, she set up a summer day camp in her own backyard, before leading the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation which allowed her the platform to discuss a large-scale athletics event for people with intellectual disabilities.
 
In 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago around 1,000 athletes with learning disabilities from the US and Canada competed in the first Special Olympics International Summer Games. Over 200 sports were offered, including broad jump, softball throw, 25-yard swim, 100-yard swim, high jump, 50-yard dash, water polo and floor hockey.
 
An idea that started in a back garden began to spread across the globe, and as culture changed those who had received stigma due to their intellectual disabilities began to gain respect both on and off the field.
 
The first five years of the 1970s saw three Special Olympics Summer Games before the introduction of the first Special Olympics Winter Games followed in 1977, televised on three major TV networks as the publicity of the event increased ever further. Muhammad Ali, who at this time had heard the news that he had Parkinson’s, became a long-time supporter of the athletes and competitions.
 
At the start of the 1980s, a Kansas Police Chief named Richard LaMunyon launched a Special Olympics awareness campaign that became what was known as the Law Enforcement Torch Run, an event which ended up becoming the largest fundraiser for the event. The movement went from strength to strength when in 1985 the US Postal released a stamp prototype marking the Winter Games in Utah.
 
Then a watershed moment. A year later the United Nations launched the International Year of Special Olympics with the motto: ‘Uniting the World’. A Christmas single marking the event was also released. It sold over two million copies worldwide.
 
By the mid-1980s the movement had spread across the globe with countries in every continent providing the sufficient infrastructure to send their athletes across to the World Games.
 
Shriver’s dedication started to pay off, so perhaps it was unsurprising that as the Special Olympics spread its messages of respect, courage and determination, it inspired others.
 
The story of Christopher Maloney MBE proved that this message struck a chord with those most passionate about promoting awareness of people with intellectual disabilities.
 
Maloney was no politician, just a devoted swimming instructor at Gloucester Leisure Centre. He taught swimmers who would qualify for the Special Olympics, so he read up on the mass movement in the US and decided to make his voice heard.
 
In 1978 Maloney contacted the Kennedy family about his work in sport. After speaking with Shriver, the pair agreed that they should concentrate the movement’s message through prestigious events, just like in the US in the 1960s.
 
Special Olympics Great Britain was born. Liverpool hosted the first National Games in 1982, and every four years a different city across the UK would hold the event, the same format as major championships.
 
As popularity expanded so did the coverage. In 1993 Austria hosted the fifth Winter Games, the first to mark a head of state taking part in the Opening Ceremony. With well-known celebrities and politicians now expressing the support for the movement, media support rocketed, with over 70,000 packed in the Yale Bowl at the 1995 Summer Games after President Clinton was on hands to open the ceremony.
 
The grandeur of ceremonies attracted media attention and brought in publicity, but it was the Healthy Athletes Program that lifted the movement to new heights.
 
Established in 1997 Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics initiative, providing health care services to athletes worldwide. The program included free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education. Since its creation, it has provided more than 1.7 million people free health examinations in more than 130 countries.
 
At the turn of the century, the Special Olympics Committee then pledged that they wanted to increase participation by one million and raise more than $120m in just a five-year period.
 
So, in May 2000, Arnold Schwarzenegger joined Special Olympics athletes to light the Flame of Hope on the Great Wall of China. The lighting of the flame signified the launch of the China Millennium March to raise the profile of those with learning disabilities across the country.
 
As a result, China promised to increase its number of athletes from 50,000 to half a million. A year later the torch toured South Africa where Nelson Mandela held it aloft with other athletes heading the movement.  
 
In 2007 over 7,500 athletes from 164 countries headed to Shanghai for the World Summer Games, with the inauguration of the initiative Young Athletes, a scheme which allowed children between two and seven opportunities to try out new sports.
 
Over the last forty years, the Special Olympics expanded from an idea in a back garden to a global event. Countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, are working with each other to promote the rights of targeted minority groups, even beyond sport.
 
Just four years ago government officials, human rights activists and leaders from the business and sports worlds opened the first Special Olympics Global Development Summit. The aim was to explore ways of how to end the cycle of poverty and exclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.  
 
Chicago will host the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics in 2018. Sport in its purity has provided those who believed they were forgotten and outsiders in a fast-moving society the opportunity to achieve their dream. Eunice Kennedy Shriver found that against the odds it was possible to put a smile on their faces. Her legacy will last for generations.

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