Like any story that changes the course of history, ours begins with a few dedicated people asking the simple question “what if?” What if individuals with intellectual disabilities had access to sport? What if they could compete like their typical peers? What if fitness became a way of life?
The late Eunice Kennedy Shriver understood the importance of and need for more physical activity for people with intellectual disabilities. What if children with intellectual disabilities were given the opportunity to kick a soccer ball and swim in a pool, just like everyone else? In 1960, she held a small summer camp in her backyard, bringing in counsellors and watching the fun and fitness unfold.
Meanwhile, here in Canada, someone else was also asking “what if?”. Dr. Frank Hayden was conducting research in the field of Physical Education at Western University right here in London, Ontario and was reviewing the grim statistics around health in individuals with intellectual disabilities. In the early 1960’s, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, shorter life spans and more, seemed to be the norm for this population. But what if they had access to better fitness? Would health improve? He began his research and not surprisingly to us today, his research proved that better fitness levels were as attainable for this population as any other. Better fitness would mean better health. His groundbreaking research proved that it was the exclusion from sport and fitness that caused the health problems, not the disability. As a result of this research, Dr. Hayden proposed a national games for the intellectually disabled.
His research and proposal came to the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Now, she had scientific evidence to support what she had observed and knew to be true.
It was the summer of 1968. Eunice Kennedy Shriver hosted the first Special Olympics at Soldiers Field in Chicago. It was an International Competition – Canada sent a floor hockey team, accompanied by Dr. Hayden and Harry “Red” Foster. The 2 men watched from the sidelines and were moved by the effort and passion of the athletes and their coaches. What if we brought this home?, they reportedly asked. The following year, 1969, thanks to Foster’s tireless efforts, Special Olympics in Canada was born.
Dr. Hayden went on to work for the Washington-based Kennedy Foundation as the director of physical education and recreation, working alongside Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He remained for seven years, returning to work at Western University in 1972. Later, Dr. Hayden helped to develop new Special Olympics programs in Europe and eventually programs in China as well.
The Special Olympics movement has grown to include nearly 3.7 million athletes in 229 accredited programs in 170 countries.
In Canada, more than 34,000 children, youth and adults are registered in 17 Olympic-type winter and summer sport programs. These programs run year-round out of local sport clubs.
Here in London, over 400 athletes currently participate in our sports programs, supported by over 200 coaches and volunteers.