When the Empire State Building lights up in your organization’s honor, you know you’re doing something right. New York City’s iconic building was illuminated red in July to celebrate the Inclusion Revolution sparked by the Special Olympics.
The 50-year-old powerful organization launched by Eunice Kennedy Shriver that provides those with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to discover new strengths, skills and success — by way of sports — has paved the way in showing people that the backbone of kinship lies in valuing differences rather than similarities.
“The athletes at Special Olympics have this capacity to teach this central lesson of our time,” Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver told us after speaking at Changing The Odds, an annual education and mental health conference hosted by Momentous Institute in Dallas. “That is, how do we navigate tension, anxiety and fear to bridge the gap in a divided world?”
Special Olympics has a well-established mission, utilizing sports as a vehicle for inclusion. But, at its core, what is it about sports that fosters such belonging?
“The basis of sports is play, and human beings learn from play. Secondly, it’s encounter. You meet people through structure and a basic framework. Third, it’s fun; and fourth, it’s healthy. All of those factors contribute to creating experiences that allow human beings to cross boundaries of fear or uncertainty in a safe context,” Shriver explained. “You can play with almost anyone because it’s fun and it’s healthy. Because it’s a learning experience, you’re likely to get a lot more out of it than you even realize. I think we’ve underdeveloped the idea of sport as an educational tool.”
An educational tool, and also a means to enter unfamiliar territory.
New City, New Sports To Try
Shannon Sullivan, 32, began participating in Special Olympics as a sophomore in high school. However, the thought of signing up in the first place brought significant anxiety.
“I thought if my friends knew I was in Special Olympics, they wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore, but then I got into Special Olympics and realized it’s okay if you have a disability,” she said. “People will still want to talk to you, no matter what.”
Sullivan, who has competed in gymnastics, snowboarding and bocce ball, is now leaning on Special Olympics years later to meet new friends. She recently made the massive move from Anchorage, Alaska to Tampa, Florida, and without snowboarding available to her anymore, she plans on picking up softball, and possibly, equestrian or volleyball.
“Once I get to know people through these new sports, I think it will be a lot easier to get involved in stuff,” she said. “Special Olympics has always given me the courage to get out of my shell and make new friends.”
And when it comes down to it, Sullivan realizes Special Olympics’ inherent superpower.
“It may seem like sports are the main reason people sign up, but really Special Olympics is all about being there for other people.”
Surging Hope And Diversity
Nearly six million athletes and more than one million volunteers in 172 countries take part in Special Olympics events each year.
“We tap into what people want. In some ways it’s an offer. It’s an offer to reconnect to things that matter to you. It’s an offer to reconnect to joy,” Shriver said. “Life is stressful. It’s filled with lots of moments where pain and anxiety overwhelm people. When people see our athletes, they get refreshed about the goodness of the human spirit and the joy of being together.”
Shriver has big plans for Special Olympics’ next 50 years. He doesn’t want the narrative to fixate on disability. He wants it to center around compassion. One important step to getting there: Put a unified sports team in every school in America.
“I think we’re gonna have a title IX type wave of change. Someday you’ll go to a high school and you’ll expect to see a boys basketball team, a girls basketball team and a Special Olympics Unified basketball team,” he said. “They’ll compete inter-scholastically, and get medals, jackets, letters and write-ups in the school newspaper. I think that will help create a surge of hope and diversity. We won’t be thinking about uniformity and homogeneity. We’ll be thinking about a system where everybody has a part.”
It’s a movement that lends itself to putting relationships before competition, position and prestige.
And, when love comes before judgement, we all win.