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Special Olympics Begins One-Year Countdown to 50th Anniversary

Chicago will host the Special Olympics movement’s 50th Anniversary global celebration events July 17 – 22, 2018.

Shaping a Better Future

Mary Davis, Special Olympics International CEO, and Justice Anne Burke, who founded Special Olympics Chicago, announced the news along with other organizers of the upcoming events. She made the announcement today at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the location of the first-ever Special Olympics Games.

Special Olympics International, Special Olympics Illinois and Special Children’s Charities have united to host nearly a week of exciting events to celebrate the past 50 years of Special Olympics and to launch the movement into the future.

"The 50th Anniversary will be a pivotal moment for Special Olympics, as we aim to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and as the leaders of inclusion through sport,” shared Mary Davis. “We have spent the past 50 years breaking down barriers for our athletes and creating opportunities through sport, but we still have much more work to do. For our 50th Anniversary, we are inviting all to join us as we shape a more accepting and inclusive future."

A Week of Events

"The torch that was lit here at Soldier Field 49 years ago today ignited a fire that will never die as long as we continue to celebrate the bravery of inspirational individuals - like Kevin O'Brien, Michael Cusack and others - who competed in 1968 and became examples, inspiring future Special Olympics athletes, here and around the world, to find the courage to enter the competition," added Justice Burke.

Events planned for July 2018 in Chicago include the first-ever Special Olympics Unified Football (Soccer) Cup, a tournament of 24 men’s and women’s teams made of people with and without intellectual disabilities from countries around the globe. 

Also planned is a star-studded concert, establishment of a Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope monument to symbolize the ongoing drive towards creating inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities, and a Change the Game Day event where the public is welcome to play unified and join in fun athletic competition with Special Olympics athletes at Soldier Field.

Old black and white photo of three young people standing on a medal stand with the columns of a stadium behind them

Young athletes came from across the USA and Canada to compete in the first International Special Olympics Summer Games, held July 20, 1968, at Soldier Field in Chicago. Nearly 50 years later, today's Special Olympics movement reaches more than 5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities in 170 countries around the world.

Traveling Museum in Illinois

Also revealed today was a traveling 50th Anniversary Museum which, throughout 2018, will traverse the state of Illinois, sharing the history of Special Olympics. The traveling museum will visit Special Olympics Illinois competitions along with high-profile state, county and municipal events, educating its public on the history of Special Olympics, its impact socially through sport, and invite people to come to Chicago in July 2018 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary. The community is welcome to donate items and memories to the museum. 

Anyone interested in learning more can visit www.SpecialOlympics50.org

History of Special Olympics

In the midst of all of the tumultuous unrest of 1968, an event was held at Soldier Field, in Chicago, Illinois on July 20. By its very nature, this was a revolutionary moment in time. The world witnessed for the first time a sports competition for people with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada. It may come as a shock today to learn that many of the participants needed government pardons to leave the institutions in which they lived to travel to Chicago to compete. Eunice Kennedy Shriver led this community – who had been locked away and condemned to exist on the margins -- out of the shadows and into one of the largest stadiums in the U.S. It was their chance, their moment, to show the world what they could accomplish. 

The first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago, a joint venture between the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and the Chicago Park District. The advisory committee to the Chicago Special Olympics included Dr. William Freeberg, Southern Illinois University; Dr. Frank J. Hayden, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation; Dr. Arthur Peavy; William McFetridge, Anne McGlone Burke and Stephen Kelly of the Chicago Park District; and Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was honorary chairman. Dr. Hayden was also executive director of the Games.

About Special Olympics

Special Olympics is a global movement that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports, every day around the world. We empower people with intellectual disabilities to become accepted and valued members of their communities, which leads to a more respectful and inclusive society for all. Using sports as the catalyst and programming around health and education, Special Olympics is fighting inactivity, injustice and intolerance. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 5.3 million athletes and Unified partners in 172 countries. With the support of more than 1 million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics delivers 32 Olympic-type sports and over 108,000 games and competitions throughout the year. Special Olympics is supported by individuals, foundations and partners. Click here for a full list of partners. Engage with us on: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and our blog on Medium.

Press Contacts

Eric Benderoff


(312) 593-0763



Chris Winston

Special Olympics Illinois

(312) 315-6185