As Special Olympics Turns 50, Catholics Continue to Encourage Joyful Competitions

A look at the impact the amazing athletes have had and continue to have.

Athletes compete at the Los Angeles 2015 World Games in athletics.
Athletes compete at the Los Angeles 2015 World Games in athletics. (photo: Courtesy of Special Olympics)

On a sunny Saturday in July 1968, a man and a woman stood together on a reviewing stand looking out on Chicago’s Soldier Field. Before them were 1,000 athletes playing hockey, swimming laps and running track.

The athletes hailed from 26 U.S. states and Canada. All were intellectually challenged, yet at the close of that summer day, more than half would go home with medals commemorating wonderful feats.

Moved by the athletes’ energy, enthusiasm and sheer humanity, the man on the reviewing stand — Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley — turned to Eunice Kennedy Shriver and said, “The world will never be the same after this.”

And, indeed, it never was the same. The Special Olympics was born on July 20, 50 years ago.


How It All Began

In 1968, Eunice Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy and one of nine children born to Joe and Rose Kennedy, was already a longtime advocate for people with special needs. She vehemently opposed the prevailing view that the intellectually disabled should be confined, denied education and deprived of social interaction.

Eunice and her husband, Sargent, established Special Olympics, an organization that would, in Shriver’s own words, “prove a very fundamental fact: that exceptional children can … through sports … realize their potential for growth.”

Eunice and Sargent Shriver were devout Catholics. Eunice was a daily communicant, and Sargent was a member of the Knights of Columbus’ Mater Dei Council 9774 in Rockville, Maryland. Interestingly, the mission of the organization they founded was similar to that of the Knights of Columbus, which was “founded to assist people facing serious challenges or living on the margins of society,” according to Kathleen Blomquist, the Knights’ senior director of corporate communications.

“Special Olympics empowers people with intellectual disabilities,” said Blomquist, “and highlights the inherent dignity of each person regardless of their abilities.”

That objective, first met 50 years ago on Soldier Field, has become the impetus for the Special Olympics World Games, a biennial outreach to the estimated 200 million people worldwide with intellectual disabilities. The World Games offer Special Olympians a global stage on which to compete and celebrate their victories. Indeed, Eunice Shriver told the 1987 World Game athletes: “You are the stars, and the world is watching you.”

But this July 17, the gaze of the world will be focused on Chicago, the birthplace of the Special Olympics movement and the site of its 50th-anniversary festivities. A weeklong celebration will include a torch run, a “Global Day of Inclusion,” a star-studded concert, and — of course — many of the competitive opportunities for which Special Olympics is primarily known.

Yet “Special Olympics involves much more than just sports,” said Deacon Jack Hasson, a former Special Olympics field director and father of a Special Olympics athlete. “The organization also promotes healthy communities that allow individuals to flourish.”

Hasson pointed out that people with special needs often receive inferior health care and that Special Olympics is working to end the disparity in services by training hundreds of thousands of health care professionals worldwide to serve people with intellectual disabilities in their own communities.

Such programs are important because “Christ owns the whole person,” said Hasson. He noted that “through participation in Special Olympics, individuals can function better in all areas of their lives.”

Hasson is a coordinator at The Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, which is currently working with the Legacy of Life Foundation to support women in crisis pregnancies.

“Everyone brings beauty to the world in his own way,” he observed. “People aren’t perfect. In Special Olympics, labels are not assigned; rather, they are taken away. There’s a place for everyone.”

Among the athletes themselves, labels simply do not exist, even on the playing field.

Jean Paslawsky, Special Olympics volunteer and author of The Rosary That Grew Flowers, shares this anecdote:

“One time at a basketball game, someone stole the ball, dribbled down the court, and then scored with an under-the-basket shot. The crowd went wild, and the players on both teams cleared their benches to run and congratulate the player. It didn’t matter which team got the points — all that mattered was that somebody stole the ball and scored! It was a magnificent human moment.

To be sure, moments such as this speak to the humanity of the Special Olympians.

“Each human being deserves dignity and respect,” said Special Olympics coach Brett Eshenour, adding that it is “a joy to watch the athletes” treat one another accordingly.

Their sense of acceptance is both an inspiration and a witness.

“Every volunteer and coach who has helped at our competitions and our programs at one time or another has stated, ‘I receive so much more from the athletes than I give.’”

Eshenour himself is a coach for 34-year-old Special Olympian Hillary McFadden, a blind and mildly autistic speed skater.

Says Hillary’s mother, Karen McFadden, “Hillary went to her first speedskating clinic in 2001, having never been on ice skates. Brett wasn’t deterred by Hillary’s blindness. He figured out that if he skated backwards in front of her and told her when to begin to turn left, she was able to compete.”

“He was impressed by her determination and asked if she wanted to participate in the Pennsylvania state games. Hillary didnt hesitate.


Chris Dooley’s Story

That kind of resolve is typical of Special Olympians, as athlete Chris Dooley also proved. In 2015, Dooley was chosen to participate in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, where he competed as a kayaker. Dooley’s paddle broke during the competition, yet he finished the race. His inspiring story is featured in “Going for the Gold,” a segment from the multipart video series Everyday Heroes, produced by the Knights of Columbus.

“When I’m out there on the water, it’s like magic,” Dooley says in the video. “Being in the World Games is amazing, and it’s just a thrill.”

As a member of Maryland’s Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Program, Dooley has learned public-speaking skills. He gives talks to various groups, recruiting athletes and volunteers, raising awareness and spreading the message and vision of the Special Olympics movement.

“People with intellectual disabilities can do the same things as people without intellectual disabilities,” affirmed Dooley in an interview. “We can do more than people think we can.”

Dooley has also honed his speaking skills by visiting senators and representatives during Capitol Hill Day, an annual legislative outreach of the Special Olympics.

His mother, Peggy Dooley, is pleased with the impact that Special Olympics has had on her son.

“Special Olympics has helped Chris improve in a multitude of ways other than by becoming a better athlete. Chris’ behavior, self-confidence and social skills have improved tremendously since he started participating in Special Olympics in 2010. He is learning that he is not the center of the universe, but only one of its stars!”

Chris Dooley is a parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul in Easton, Maryland, as well as a member of its Knights of Columbus council.

“My Catholic faith keeps me motivated and keeps me going,” said Dooley. “It motivates me to try and be a better person in God’s eyes and to do better in my races.”


All About Joy

Tim Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the chairman of Special Olympics, characterizes the athletes’ can-do attitude as “daring, determined and recklessly optimistic.”

And in the case of John Lee Cronin, that includes downright adventuresome.

John, who has Down syndrome, and his father, Mark X. Cronin, are the founders of John’s Crazy Socks, an online store that offers socks with unique designs.   Before the father and son launched their business, John had little more than an affinity for wild socks and a desire to start a venture that was “fun and creative.” The duo took a chance on an enterprise that John tagged with the slogan: “Socks, socks and more socks.” 

Within the first month, John’s Crazy Socks had shipped 452 orders and earned more than $13,000 in revenue, with 5% of its profits going to Special Olympics, an organization dear to John’s heart.

“I love the Special Olympics,” said the 22-year-old entrepreneur. “I love doing sports.  I love being active. I like playing with my teammates. It is so much fun.”

John’s Special Olympics team, the Commack Sharks, were the inspiration for the Shark Crew Socks, a popular item in the John’s Crazy Socks inventory. $2 from the sale of each pair of Shark Crew Socks is donated to the Special Olympics. 

“The Special Olympics allows John the same opportunities to train and compete in sports as his older brothers,” said Mark Cronin. “I have seen John and his teammates learn discipline through training.  They’ve learned teamwork. They benefit from the physical activity.  It is exhilarating to watch.”

That kind of success isn’t reflected in any bottom line, but it’s what motivates the father-son team behind John’s Crazy Socks. Under the heading “Inspiration and Hope,” the store’s website reads, “We want to show the world what people with differing abilities can do when given a chance.”

It’s a goal that’s shared by the Special Olympics, said podcaster and blogger Daniel Smrokowski, who believes that the organization’s vision is as much about joy as it is about sports ability.

“The Special Olympics movement shows the world the joy that those of us with intellectual disabilities bring to our world,” he said.

Anyone who follows Smrokowski on social media knows that the Special Olympics athlete and global messenger does not want for joy. Born 13 weeks premature and diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder, Smrokowski overcame those obstacles and went on to found Special Chronicles, a “new media network that gives respect and voice to people with special needs.”

Said Smrokowski, “It doesn’t matter what disability or difference a person was diagnosed with. Every person is valued.”

Smrokowski believes that the words spoken 50 years ago by Mayor Daley were prophetic.

“The Special Olympics movement is truly changing the world,” he said, “by leading the ‘inclusion revolution’ both on the playing field and in the community.”

Smrokowski will be doing his part to further the “inclusion revolution” by covering the Special Olympics 50th-anniversary celebration on

The swimmer and basketball player also has a message for athletes who do not have intellectual disabilities.

“You can have fun, and it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. All that matters is what the Special Olympics’ athlete oath says: ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’”

It was for exemplifying those words that speed skater Hillary McFadden won the 2017 Lonnie R. Straw Memorial Athlete’s Oath Award. Said Karen McFadden: “Her friends were all as excited for Hillary as they would have been if they were being awarded this honor. That truly speaks to what Special Olympics does for these athletes. There is no disability among them.

“To see the smiles on the faces of these athletes, to watch their pride as a medal is placed around someone’s neck, is to truly see the love of Christ.”

Celeste Behe writes from

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.