Unified Sports Popular Through Special Olympics College

Unified Sports Popular Through Special Olympics College

Melissa W.

The world is abuzz right now with the Tokyo Olympics and we’re having so much fun following along! Since we know which colleges in the US hold the most medals heading into the 2020/2021 Summer Games, we thought we’d highlight an organization that partners with colleges and universities for another type of athletic games: The Special Olympics!

The Special Olympics were started in the 1960s after two mothers of children with intellectual disabilities approached Eunice Kennedy Shriver sharing their difficulties in finding a summer camp to accept their children. Eunice, a member of the Kennedy family was a well-known philanthropist who was actively researching and breaking down barriers for people with intellectual disabilities. She started Camp Shriver in her backyard in Maryland and served 34 children the first year -- she also recruited high school and college students as camp counselors with a close to 1:1 ratio.

“To almost everyone's surprise--the exception being Eunice--it was an instant success. The children swam, kicked soccer balls, shot baskets and rode horses under the summer sun. Perhaps most importantly, the young counselors, wary at first, began to see, as Eunice already had, that these children were not "difficult," "unteachable," "belligerent" and all those other stereotypes that had been ascribed to them. They merely wanted to have fun ... just like every other kid. As the camp continued and flourished, people from the community came out to watch, and they were followed by representatives of the parks department and public-school system. "That's when it really began to catch on," Eunice said.”

After the camp became such a success and she started noticing a correlation between improved learning skills as a result of physical training, Shriver proposed a nationwide sports contest for young people with intellectual disabilities. By July 1968, the first Special Olympic Games were held at Chicago’s Soldier Field with over 200 events offered to athletes. Today, there are local Special Olympic Games held regularly with world competitions happening biannually.

Keeping with its roots of utilizing high school and college students as Camp Shriver counselors, The Special Olympics organization founded a side division: Special Olympics College that “connects college students and individuals with intellectual disabilities through shared experiences. Together, college students and Special Olympics athletes can work together to build accepting campus communities and build friendships that help lead the social inclusion movement of Special Olympics.” 

Campuses across the country have Special Olympics College Clubs that “function as an official student organization on campus and are led by students with and without intellectual disabilities. Many clubs also allow Special Olympics athletes from the community to participate as athlete leaders. Members of Special Olympics College Clubs gain experiences participating in Unified Sports and hosting Special Olympics events, thus creating opportunities for meaningful inclusion of people with and without intellectual disabilities in the campus community.” They also have close ties with Alpha Phi Omega and Sigma Tau Gamma.

To date, there are 215 colleges and universities that have Special Olympics College Clubs on campus “providing ongoing Unified and inclusionary activities for students and Special Olympics athletes.”

While the Tokyo Summer Games are well underway, you’ll have to wait until 2022 for the next Special Olympics Winter Games held in Kazan, Russia. 

Are you a Special Olympics athlete?! Let us know in the comments!


Cover Photo of Special Olympic Athletes celebrating their medal ceremony courtesy of Special Olympics International.

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