The Special Olympics movement was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, with the very first event held in 1968 on Soldier Field in Chicago. But the competition was in fact inspired by discoveries made by a Canadian researcher.
In the early 1960s, a group of students at Toronto’s Beverley School 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 children from fully participating in play and recreation. Through rigorous scientific method, Dr. Hayden proved that it was simply a lack of opportunity to participate. Given that opportunity, people with an intellectual disability could acquire the necessary skills to participate in sport and become physically fit.
In other words: sport could have a transformative effect on the lives of those with an intellectual disability.
Transforming the world
Dr. Hayden’s proposal for a National sport competition caught the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, serving as inspiration for the inaugural Special Olympics competition in 1968 in Chicago. Canada was represented by a group of 12 students and a teacher from the Beverley School, as well as Toronto Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong, serving as Honorary Team Captain.
Dr. Hayden also served as the Chicago 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 Ms. Kennedy Shriver.
Making history at home
Harry “Red” Foster, a Canadian broadcast legend and philanthropist, was in Chicago in 1968 to witness the birth of the Special Olympics movement. He was inspired by what he saw and experienced, and worked tirelessly to bring this global force back to Canada.