Special Olympics founded, grows in Chicago

By Kyle Rich

Chicago is known for Al Capone and the devastating fire of 1871, but it is also the birthplace of a positive historic movement that began more than four decades ago.

The city hosted the first International Special Olympics Summer Games at Soldier Field in July 1968, at which more than 1,000 athletes with mental disabilities from the United States and Canada gathered to compete in swimming and track and

field events.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel voiced his support of the program on Oct. 23 at the third annual Special Olympic mayoral breakfast hosted at the University Club. He said he was honored to be there as the brother of a woman with special needs. He added that strength can be found in every individual by expanding opportunities for everyone

to compete.

“Chicago is the Second City, but we are also known as the city of many firsts,” Emanuel said. “[We built the] first skyscraper, we split the first atom, we sent the firstAfrican-American to the White House. And what Chicago should be most proud of is hosting the first Special Olympics in 1968. It’s a special part of Chicago’s character.”

Special Olympics Illinois continues to thrive, said Barbara DiGuido, director of communications for Special Olympics Illinois. The fall games took place Oct. 27 in Rockford, Ill., and for the first time featured equestrian sports, volleyball and unified volleyball, which combines athletes

with and without disabilities.

It all started with the late Dr. William Freeberg, former chairman of the Recreation and Outdoor Education Department at Southern Illinois University, who ran a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities in the early 1950s. He was approached by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was continuing her family’s work with the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation by financing research and supporting programs for the disabled.

During his partnership with the foundation, Freeberg conducted seminars across the country and worked with recreational directors to develop special needs programs. Although the Chicago Park District already offered recreational programs for those with mental disabilities, Freeberg held a seminar for 10 physical education teachers working with the district, according to DiGuido. Among them was PE teacher Anne Burke, who currently serves as Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court’s First

Judicial District.

“I didn’t know I wanted to start the Special Olympics,” Burke said. “What I was doing at the time was teaching children with disabilities physical education.”

Burke said the Special Olympics started with the idea for a citywide track meet. William McFetridge, former vice president of the district, met with Burke’s students and

wanted to reach out to even more children. Burke proposed hosting a track meet and worked with Freeberg to help secure funding for the event from Shriver and

the foundation.

According to DiGuido, Shriver loved the idea but had bigger plans.

“Shriver said, ‘Instead of making this an event for the city, let’s open it up to the entire country and Canada,’” DiGuido said. “So the first games had 1,000 athletes from the U.S. and Canada.”

The first International Special Olympics Summer Games included a 50-yard dash, a 1K run, relay races and ball throwing, and more activities were added each year.  Today, the program is recognized in

170 countries.

One of the biggest challenges for organizers was getting parents to agree to let their children


“The families had to be convinced,” DiGuido said. “They were extremely protective of their children and had to know this was a good thing.”

Alas, there was  a problem with the word “Olympics” being used. Avery Brundage, who oversaw the International Olympic Committee, wanted to sue the Park District in the early 1970s for using the word Olympics,’which was copyrighted. The issue was resolved when former Mayor Richard J. Daley urged Brundage

to reconsider.

Despite her hard work, Burke never anticipated that the Special Olympics would become what it

is today.

“[While] teaching anybody, you want them to succeed, so it really never occurred to me these kids were any different than the kids I taught as a PE teacher,” Burke said. “I didn’t have any grand ideas to change the world or anything

like that.”