In 1968, 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada met at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois to compete in the first Special Olympics. The event, which from its inaugural year was held
biannually, marked the formation of a high-level international athletic competition for young athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice and then physical education teacher, Anne McGlone Burke,
coordinated the event after attending a seminar with Dr. William Freeberg, a physical education professor at Southern Illinois University. Freeberg’s research on the benefits of athletic activity for people with intellectual disabilities and advocacy for social recreation inspired Burke to foster a large athletic community for those with intellectual disabilities.
Research in the 1950s and 1960s proved the benefits of athletic participation to social,
intellectual and other facets of daily life for people with disabilities. The Kennedy Foundation, led by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, put these studies into action. The organization granted $10,000 to the Chicago Parks Department to implement Chicago’s Special Recreation Department. When Burke, a leader in the organization, met with Shriver to discuss funding for a track meet for young people with disabilities, Shriver encouraged the establishment of a national, multi-sport occasion. Shriver and the Chicago Parks District announced the first Special Olympics in March of 1968.
On July 20th, 1,000 athletes took to the field, led by James, a 17-year-old athlete carrying a 45-foot torch marking the monumental event and honoring John F. Kennedy’s support for those with disabilities. Marching band horns blew and thousands of balloons flew from the open stadium. The event hosted 200 different sports, including track and field and swimming.
Chicago’s La Salle Hotel was established as the Special Olympic village, where professional
athletes held clinics in various sports for the relaxing competitors. After each event, the top
three athletes won gold, silver and bronze, Illinois Sesquicentennial medals and cheers and
ovations from the crowd.
At the end of the one-day competition, as coaches, athletes, families and sponsors joined
together, a new era of sports began — one that empowered every athlete. Today, more than five million athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities participate in Special Olympics programs around the world.