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Special Olympics Celebrate 45th Anniversary in the City Where It All Began

By Juan Thompson | July 19, 2013 9:04am
 Saturday marks the 45th anniversay of the Special Olympics, which held its first games in Chicago in 1968.
45th Anniversary of Special Olympics
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THE LOOP — 1968 was a year of tremendous tumult and bloodshed.

The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and race riots in cities across the country took place amid the backdrop of the ongoing Vietnam War.

But an inspiring event took place at Soldier Field on July 20 of that year: The Special Olympics, which bills itself as the world’s largest competitive sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, were born in Chicago on that day.

Special Olympics Chicago commemorated the 45th anniversary with a softball game Thursday featuring some 300 athletes at Grant Park’s Hutchinson Field.

Amelia Hernandez, of Little Village, was one of those participating.

Hernandez was just 11 years old in 1968 when she walked onto Soldier Field for the inaugural Special Olympics Games.

“I remember running the 50-meter run and the standing long jump," she recalled.

“I never gave it up. I kept going and I have new friends from all over the world," the gold medalist added with a huge smile on her face.

Mario Gagne, 27, an athlete from the West Side, concurred.

“You meet a lot of new friends and train for new sports," Gagne said.

Michael Benavente, the Chicago Park District’s Special Olympics coordinator, said he too has developed special relationships with the athletes.

“It’s amazing. I know at least 500 of these guys by name," Benavente said. "They call my cell phone just to tell me about new television shows. I’m very proud of them."

Janis Kief, of the Loop, was one of the volunteers who took part in Thursday's commemoration.

“A lot of people push them aside. I think it’s important to bring them into society, instead of pushing them away," she said.

The Special Olympics were the brainchild of numerous individuals, most notably Anne Burke and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy.

In the early 1960s, Shriver began a camp in her own back yard for people with intellectual disabilities.

That backyard camp morphed into the Special Olympics Games of today with the integral help of Burke, now an Illinois Supreme Court Justice and the wife of longtime 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke.

Shriver, as chairwoman of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, provided the seed money for the first games. The event was organized and run by Burke, then a Chicago Park District gym teacher who had developed a plan for the city’s intellectually disabled persons to compete in athletic events.

The first games featured 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada who competed in track-and-field events at Soldier Field, which had also installed a pool to accommodate the water sports.

More than four decades later the Special Olympics Games are flourishing, with 7,000 athletes from more than 170 countries expected to compete next summer in the 2015 international games in Los Angeles.

“I never saw individuals work so hard to achieve what we see as small achievements”, Burke said Thursday, standing next to a giant birthday cheesecake with “45” mounted on top of it.

“Thank you for 45 years for teaching us that we should have faith in taking those steps on the staircase of life," Burke told the crowd.