It's 50 years ago this month since Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of assassinated US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, opened the first Special Olympics at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Shriver's involvement came in part thanks to her own history - her sister Rosemary was born with an intellectual disability and Shriver wanted a better future for children like her. 

In 1957, Shriver took over the directorship of the Kennedy family's Joseph P Kennedy Jr Foundation which aimed at improving how society cares for people with intellectual disabilities and to help identify and so prevent its causes.

Aware of her growing advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities, in the early 1960s she was approached by a woman asking what she should do after her son was rejected from attending a summer camp because he had an intellectual disability. Shriver took action - in June, 1962, she opened a summer day camp, 'Camp Shriver', for children with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard in suburban Washington, DC. The program quickly expanded.

 Special Olympics

Athletes gather for the closing ceremony of the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Graz, Austria. PICTURE: Christopher Kelemen/GEPA pictures.

Following the success of the camps, in 1966 Shriver proposed nationwide sports contests be held between teams of young people with intellectual disabilities, citing the dramatic improvement in learning skills among people with intellectual disabilities as a result of physical training. The following year, Shriver, in her role with the foundation, was approached about supporting a track event modelled after the Olympics to be held in Chicago and threw her support behind it, asking that it be expanded to include athletes from across the country.

Badged as the International Special Olympics Summer Games, the event took place on 20th July, 1968, as a joint venture between the Kennedy Foundation and the Chicago Park District. More than 1,000 atheletes from 26 states across the US took part in more than 200 events including everything from the broad and high jump to swimming events and water polo.

Following the success of the event, Shriver pledged to again hold the games in 1970 and every two years thereafter. The second games were again held in Chicago and, as well as coming from all 50 US states, athletes were also present from Canada and France.

The movement continued to grow in the years following - the first ever international Special Olympics Winter Games were held in February, 1977, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado - and by 1986 - when the United Nations launched the International Year of Special Olympics - Special Olympics programs had spread to more than 50 countries.

The Special Olympics movement is now represented in 172 countries and has more than 4.9 million athetes particpating. More than 108,000 competitions ranging from local to international meets are held each year featuring 32 Olympic-style sports.

To be eligible to participate, athletes must be at least eight-years-of age and be formally assessed as having an intellectual disability, cognitive delays, or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delays. 

The most recent Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in LA in 2015 and the most recent Winter Games in Austria in 2017. The next Special Olympics World Summer Games will be Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates next year with more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries expected to attend.

www.specialolympics50.org