50 Years of the Special Olympics


Every four years, millions of people from all over the world tune in to watch their countries compete in the Summer and Winter Olympics. While these mega events boast the best athletes and most dazzling spectacles the world has to offer, there is another successful, similarly named organization that leverages the pure joy and enthusiasm of sport—the Special Olympics. Starting as a grassroots program, the Special Olympics has evolved into a global movement changing lives and inspiring hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities. In this milestone 50th anniversary year, we reviewed several key factors that led to its growth on such a massive scale.

Origin of the Special Olympics

According its website, the Special Olympics was started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the 1960s, when she was upset about societies' unjust treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. Shriver wanted to create an inclusive place or program where individuals with disabilities could be empowered and free from the harsh judgments of society.

In 1962, at her home in Maryland, Shriver founded a summer camp known as "Camp Shriver" for children with intellectual disabilities. The camp was a huge success, and it grew in popularity over the next several years.

In 1968, Shriver reached a monumental milestone—the first International Special Olympics Summer Games. Taking place at Soldier Field in Chicago, the games boasted more than 200 events and brought in about 1,000 athletes. While these numbers paled in comparison to the regular Olympic Games, Shriver was ecstatic about this accomplishment and couldn't wait to see what the future held.

Fifty years later, the Special Olympics is a global movement involving 5.7 million athletes and partners in 172 countries, with more than 108,000 competitions each year.

Grassroots Movement

Per the official website of the Special Olympics, the organization greatly values the grassroots nature of the movement. The operation of related training programs and competitive events largely relies on public participation and support across the world. Of the 5.7 million athletes and Unified Partners and one million coaches and volunteers involved in the Special Olympics, most of them are training, playing or cheering with the grassroots programs.

The grassroots nature of the Special Olympics not only facilitates the mobilization of mass participation in its widespread programs, it also secures continuing support (e.g., volunteers, equipment, facilities) from the local community where the participants are from and where the programs are located.

Partnership Building

Fostering partnerships has been an ongoing effort as well as a critical factor to the success of the Special Olympics, which has built a variety of partnerships with different organizations. These include sport governing bodies, NGOs, media agencies, corporations and governments, all of which help to grow the Special Olympics' global recognition.

One of the most prominent relationships is with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Special Olympics reached an agreement with the IOC in 1988, which officially recognized the Special Olympics as a representative to the Olympics on behalf of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Under this agreement, the IOC not only officially endorses and recognizes the Special Olympics, but also allows the organization to use the name "Olympics."

Outside of the IOC, the Special Olympics has managed to create partnerships with a variety of businesses, including Coca-Cola, ESPN, Hasbro, IKEA Foundation, Microsoft, NFL, P&G and Toyota. Coca-Cola, one of the founding partners of the Special Olympics, has aired a multitude of commercials for the Special Olympics all over the globe. As Mike Gastineau indicated in his article "Special Olympics Partner Steps Up to Change the Game" on the Special Olympics website, during their 50-year relationship, Coca-Cola has cumulatively invested more than $190 million in support of the Special Olympics through product, equipment, donations and marketing support.


The Special Olympics has developed a close partnership with government partners, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to improve the health of people with intellectual disabilities. It has also reached agreements with governments and international NGOs to help expand the programs to many parts of the globe. For example, Dale Rutstein reported in his article "UNICEF and Special Olympics Partner in China to Raise Disability Awareness," published on the official website of the UNICEF, that when the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games was held in Shanghai, the organization partnered with UNICEF and the Chinese government to develop a series of campaigns to increase public awareness and participation rates of young people with intellectual disabilities in the Special Olympics. The goal of this partnership was set to extend beyond China, as it also featured similar efforts in other countries like Bulgaria, Cambodia, El Salvador, Panama, Jamaica and Uzbekistan.

Building partnerships with media organizations to ensure exposure and coverage is another crucial factor behind the continuing growth of the Special Olympics. Shaun Heasley, in his article "ABC, ESPN Sign On to Broadcast Special Olympics," published on disabilityscoop.com, noted that ESPN had partnered with the Special Olympics and broadcast portions of the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria. The games were made available to more than 190 countries by means of television and online streaming. In the recent 2018 USA Games, the Opening Ceremonies and highlights from the Games were aired on ESPN and ABC. ESPN is also scheduled to broadcast the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi.

Celebrity Ambassadors

To promote brandd awareness and attract public participation, the Special Olympics has been successful in utilizing its celebrity ambassadors. Whether through attending the Games, voicing support over social media or donating to the cause, these celebrity ambassadors promote the Special Olympics to fans and followers across the globe. In the United States, some of the best-known ambassadors are NBA stars Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard, Olympians Apolo Anton Ohno and Michael Phelps, and NFL stars Joe Haden and Jamaal Charles. Outside of the United States, some of the biggest foreign ambassadors are Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco, footballer Dani Alves, retired Congolese NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, retired Japanese footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, Argentine-Venezuelan singer and songwriter

Ricardo Montaner, retired Chinese NBA player Yao Ming, and many more. With such a wide variety of ambassadors, the Special Olympics is able to spread its message and support to areas all over the globe.

Globalization of the Special Olympics

While the Special Olympics originated in the United States, the games have extended beyond U.S. borders. In March 1993, the Fifth Special Olympics International Winter Games were held in Austria, marking the first time the Games were held outside of the United States. Since then, the Special Olympics has been, or will be, held in eight countries other than the United States, including Canada, Ireland, Japan, China, Greece, South Korea, Austria and the United Arab Emirates.

Over the past 50 years, the Special Olympics has grown from a grassroots program into a premier global movement for athletes with intellectual disabilities. During that time, it managed to mobilize global participation at different levels, build dynamic partnerships with governments, NGOs and companies, gain public attention through media coverage, and receive support from countless celebrity ambassadors. There are also numerous ways the organization can continue to advance. For example, the Special Olympics could work with media producers such as the ESPN to provide more diverse content and streaming options to public audiences. It could also advance its partnership with the IOC to better take advantage of the global awareness and outreach of the Olympic Movement (e.g., have the Special Olympics take place in the same host city as the Olympics, much like the Paralympics). Regardless of what the future holds, the inspirational story of the Special Olympics serves as a great model for other grassroots sport organizations in pursuit of growth.



Eric Schutter is an undergraduate at the University of Dayton, studying sport management. He has interest in pursuing a career in sales and fundraising or campus recreation.

Dr. Haozhou Pu is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton. Dr. Pu's research focuses on the political and economic impacts of mega-events, psychological connection between fans and sport teams, and globalization.

Dr. Peter Titlebaum, Professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton, has more than 30 years' experience in management in the profit, nonprofit, private, and public sectors. He speaks and writes on areas of networking, organizational, and personal development, educating audiences to be their own advocates.