Cody Hills, Daily Sun Staff Writer
July 22, 2018
Special Olympics equestrian rider Becky Richter, of Ocala, gets a kiss from Tex after a gold medal- winning ride in March during the state equestrian championship for Special Olympics Florida at Grand Oaks Resort in Weirsdale. Cindy Skop, Daily Sun
From its start in the suburban backyard of its founding member, the Special Olympics program has paved the way for disabled athletes to compete with one another for more than a half-century.
A summer day camp held in June 1962 at the home of Eunice Kennedy Shriver set the tone for those with intellectual disabilities to participate in sanctioned sports. The inaugural International Special Olympics Summer Games were held 50 years ago this month at Soldier Field in Chicago.
And through unwavering volunteerism and decades of advancing exposure, Special Olympics has continued the mission that officially originated in July 1968 into a worldwide landscape of opportunities that serves nearly 5 million athletes across 172 countries today.
“When Special Olympics started 50 years ago, the goal was to just get these wonderful athletes on the field and give them the opportunity to compete,” said Bankole Adebanjo, director of Special Olympics Florida’s West region, which oversees the Sumter County chapter. “We did that, and we’ve done that well for 50 years. It’s always been about ensuring quality experiences and making sure that these athletes who are putting so much into their sports are getting the utmost equal opportunity to compete.”
The premiere Special Olympics on July 20, 1968, in Chicago featured more than 1,000 individuals from 26 states and Canada, as athletes competed in track and field and swimming disciplines.
The success of the first event led Special Olympics to incorporate a little over a week later, with the second competition expanding to include more than 1,500 athletes hailing from all 50 U.S. states, Canada and France in August 1970.
In 1972, Special Olympics Florida and its 68 chapters were founded in a effort to provide disabled athletes with competitive athletic opportunities in the Sunshine State.
The organization set a state record for participants in 2017, as a total of 44,406 athletes were served in events across Florida.
“(The record) is only possible thanks to the families, volunteers and donors whose shared belief in revealing champions makes our movement possible,” said Sherry Wheelock, president and CEO of Special Olympics Florida, in response to the overwhelming participation. “While we’ve set new records for serving people with intellectual disabilities across the state, our vision for the future includes building new partnerships, growing our community and school-based programs, and addressing the unmet health needs.”
Locally, the chapters of Special Olympics Florida in Lake, Marion and Sumter counties have reinforced that ambition to the combined tune of more than 1,400 athletes participating in 15 sports available to them.
Lake County is home to 813 registered athletes, while Marion County hosts 509 athletes and Sumter County serves nearly 90 participants.
“When it boils down to it, I think the two words that come to mind the most are ‘joy’ and ‘opportunity,’” Adebanjo said. “You realize that these athletes are really no different than those without disabilities — they train and put in a lot of hard work, so it’s only right that they get to experience things that other athletes get to.
“Because for 50 years now, Special Olympics has been all about doing what we can to have these amazing athletes realize their own inner champion.”
At the spirited core of localized Special Olympics events, more than 460 tri-county area residents volunteer their time annually, ensuring that all participants are coached, mentored and facilitated equally through the program.
“We’re a volunteer-driven organization, right down to our heart and soul,” said Michelle Beumer, director of Special Olympics Florida’s East region, which operates the Lake County chapter. “Our volunteers are not only giving us their time and effort, but they’re also our coaches and our mentors. They are so important in the daily workings of our entire organization that it’s fair to say we wouldn’t even exist without them.”
While breaking barriers for disabled athletes remained at the forefront for Special Olympics over its first 50 years of operation, officials within the organization have announced that the next half-century comes with a recharged and refocused campaign toward equal opportunity.
Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, the son of the organization’s late founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, said the 50th anniversary has sparked the “Global Inclusion Movement,” advocating for more social inclusion in sports, health, education and employment.
“For 50 years, we have been breaking down barriers and creating solutions for real problems that people with intellectual disabilities face,” Shriver said in a statement announcing the initiative. “We need to accelerate this work in our next 50 years.
“The world is a divided place and attitudes of mass destruction are tearing communities apart. But we know firsthand how the Special Olympics experience — and our athletes — bring people together in ways that erase the lines of division.”
Cody Hills is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or firstname.lastname@example.org.