Laying the foundation
As a national organization, we have been working with children, youth and adults with an intellectual disability for over forty years. Within this time, it has grown well beyond being an event to become a year-round movement with chapters in almost every province and territory.
Who We Are
Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown to include nearly 3.7 million athletes in 229 accredited programs in 170 countries, including Canada.
On June 9, 1969, in Toronto, Ontario, the very first Special Olympics national competition was held, less than one year after the sport movement was born on Chicago’s Soldier Field. It attracted 1,400 individuals with an intellectual disability from towns and cities across our country.
Competing in athletics, aquatics, and – no surprise here – floor hockey, they joined Harry “Red” Foster, the visionary who worked tirelessly to bring the sport movement to this country. The Canadian broadcast legend, advertising executive and philanthropist was inspired by what he had seen in Chicago, Illinois, one year earlier.
Special Olympics today
Today, the movement has expanded across Canada and it is no longer just a cycle of national competitions. Special Olympics now enriches the lives of more than 36,000 children, youth and adults who are registered in its 17 Olympic-type winter and summer sport programs, as well as the lives of their family, friends and supporters. These programs run year-round out of local sport clubs.
We are proud that, for more than 40 years, we have delivered one message to Canadians: people with an intellectual disability can and will succeed in life if given the opportunity.
Sport Canada, a government agency under the Department of Canadian Heritage, recognizes Special Olympics as the main provider of these services to people whose primary diagnosis is an intellectual disability.
A Canadian Connection
In the early 1960s, a group of students at Beverley School, an inner-city school in Toronto, Ontario, became the test group for Dr. Frank Hayden, a sport scientist at the University of Toronto. Dr. Hayden was studying the effects of regular exercise on the fitness levels of children with an intellectual disability.
Dr. Hayden’s research was nothing short of groundbreaking. It challenged the prevailing mindset of the day – one that claimed that it was the disability itself that prevented them from fully participating in play and recreation. Through rigorous scientific method, Dr. Hayden proved that it was simply the lack of opportunity to participate that caused their fitness levels to suffer. Given the opportunity, people with an intellectual disability could acquire the necessary skills to participate in sport, and become physically fit. Sport could have a transformative effect on the lives of those with an intellectual disability.
His research and his proposal for a national sport competition would catch the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, serving as inspiration for the inaugural competition in 1968 in Chicago, Illinois, on Soldier Field. Toronto’s Beverley School was also involved that day: Canada was represented by a group of 12 of its students, as well as Maple Leaf’s captain, George Armstrong, who was there as the team’s honourary captain, and Harold Smith, the young teacher who coached the floor hockey team at Beverley School.
Dr. Hayden served as the event’s general director and eventually 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 the University of Western Ontario in 1972.
Fast-forward to the early 1980s when he took part in a conference in Washington to discuss program development. He eventually helped build new programs in Europe over a three-and-a-half year period.
By 1988, as he was pondering early retirement, he was once again called upon by Special Olympics, Inc., this time as a regional manager who would establish programs in China. Although he was transferred to Paris, France instead, he worked on international development for three years.