Smithsonian honors Special Olympics athletes and history

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has a new exhibition — titled Special Olympics at 50 — that tells the story of one of the world’s most transformative civil rights movements.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Special Olympics is a global sports competition for people with intellectual disabilities, involving some 5 million participating athletes in 172 countries. It’s also a powerful force for inclusion, using sports to fight stigma and discrimination.

Through memorabilia and photographs, the exhibition highlights the role of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921–2009) and the accomplishments of four prominent Special Olympians.

Shriver’s son, Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver, recently described the exhibition as “a joyous and important milestone for our movement.”

Man speaking, with athletes in winter gear around him (Special Olympics International)
Timothy Shriver speaks at the opening ceremonies for the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. (Special Olympics International)

He noted that Abu Dhabi will host the Special Olympics World Games in March 2019, adding: “The athletes of Special Olympics are leaders the world needs at this critical moment, teaching us how to shower respect on your fellow human beings and showing the world what it means to choose to include.”

A movement takes off

Special Olympics, which has improved the lives of people around the world, emerged from unlikely beginnings.

It all began with a modest gathering on the grounds of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s home during the 1960s, an era when most people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized — effectively segregated from society, with few opportunities for education, employment or anything else.

Inspired by her sister Rosemary, who was born with intellectual disabilities, Shriver — whose brother was President John F. Kennedy — wanted to give special-needs kids a chance to compete in organized sports. So she invited a group of them to swim, play soccer and shoot basketball hoops in her backyard. She named her backyard gathering “Camp Shriver,” which eventually grew into Special Olympics.

Special Olympics held its first competition at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968, and Shriver’s hat and clipboard from that inaugural event are on display at Special Olympics at 50.

Bib, exhibition, gymnastics unitard (Side photos: Hugh Talman; center photo: Jaclyn Nash; both: National Museum of American History)
A competitor’s bib worn by Marty Sheets, left, and other Special Olympics memorabilia are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, right. (Side photos: Hugh Talman; center photo: Jaclyn Nash; both: National Museum of American History)

Among the exhibition’s highlighted athletes is Marty Sheets, a North Carolina native who had Down syndrome. Sheets (1953–2015) attended the first games in 1968 and competed in a variety of sports in subsequent years (there’s no maximum age limit for Special Olympics competitors).

He won some 250 medals in downhill skiing, golf, swimming and weightlifting, becoming one of the most decorated Special Olympians.

Also featured are Loretta Claiborne, a track-and-field athlete from Pennsylvania; multisports athlete Ricardo Thornton, from Washington; and Lee Dockins, a gymnast from Kentucky.

Claiborne, now a motivational speaker, has completed 26 marathons and communicates in five languages. Thornton — a husband, father and grandfather — has traveled to South Africa and Morocco as a Special Olympics ambassador. Dockins, a gymnast since age 8, has competed around the world and coaches young gymnasts (including kids without disabilities) while pursuing her own training.