Editor's note: Watch the finals of the Unified Cup in Chicago at 6 p.m. ET today on ESPN2.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver always brought a hula hoop and a stopwatch into the schools with which she worked. That's one detail her son Tim Shriver remembers about the days when his mother, the founder of the Special Olympics, brought him and his siblings to work with her. Those tools of her trade illustrated to him the importance of movement, challenge, education and, most importantly, inclusion. Today, Tim Shriver is the chairman of the Special Olympics, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first International Special Olympics Games, which were held on July 20, 1968, in Chicago.
On the heels of the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Shriver returned to Chicago to kick off a year of global celebrations with the inaugural Special Olympics Unified Cup, a tournament featuring 24 women's and men's unified soccer teams from around the world. Special Olympics Unified Sports bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team to compete. The finals of the Unified Cup will be live on ESPN2 today at 6 p.m. ET.
"I envision a day when every high school in America will have a men's basketball, a women's basketball and a Special Olympics Unified basketball team," Shriver said. "This is not just a game. It is a revolution. And it is not just for sport, it's sport to change the world." Shriver sat down with ESPN.com to share his earliest memories of the Special Olympics, his vision for a more inclusive world and how he is working to bring his mother's dream full circle.
ESPN: The Special Olympics started in your backyard. What do you remember about the beginning?
TIM SHRIVER: I remember the fun of Camp Shriver. I mean, if you're a 4- or 5- or 6-year-old boy and your backyard becomes a playground [with] pony rides, ropes courses, kickball games, capture the flag, swimming races, it was almost as though Disney World came to my house.
My first memories were of being paired up with a camper who had an intellectual disability -- my mom even wrote about it. His name was Wendell. And we would be matched for the whole day together. [My mom] even commented in The Saturday Evening Post that he was better as an athlete than I was. But I remember the kind of mystery of the whole thing.
All of a sudden, the school buses coming into our driveway and people getting off of these buses. And every morning, we'd raise the flag. And there'd be a trumpet [playing as] one of the campers would raise the flag up the flagpole. And we'd all stand. Some nights I got to take the flag down and put it in the closet. Make sure it didn't touch the ground because if an American flag ever touched the ground, it would destroy its sacred quality. So there was a reverence -- and a mysterious importance to Camp Shriver that wasn't just the fun. There was something bigger going on. And I think even as a little boy, I could sense that what was happening there was as beautiful as it was fun.
ESPN: After the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968, why do you think the organization grew so quickly?
TS: I think we're all hungry for something important, something meaningful, something bigger. We live our daily lives wondering whether they matter, whether we matter, whether anybody really notices us. On the field in Chicago, I think everyone who came felt an answer to that question that, yes, they were a part of something bigger.
We played but we saw one another without judgment, without fear, without anger, without patronizing putdowns. We saw ourselves maybe, all of us. Whatever little broken parts of ourselves, it was OK. And the athletes made that possible. It wasn't the people who gave, it was the people who competed, who gave back this vision of what sport could do. And so it wasn't surprising to me that immediately volunteers raised their hand and said "We wanna do this too" in Montana, or in Michigan, or in Canada.
You didn't need to come from a particular religion or a particular community. Anybody could join this movement, this movement of the human spirit. What happened in Chicago was the athletes taught a huge lesson to the world and that was that everybody has a gift and that we're all much, much better when we celebrate that idea.
ESPN: Can you remember a time when your mother charged you with the mission of carrying Special Olympics forward?
TS: Our mother was passing the torch all day, every day. You know, there wasn't a day where she didn't say, "Get up, get out, get going. Get moving, make a difference. Work harder, try harder. Put yourself in the game." And she taught us that lesson, after school, playing touch football. And she taught us that lesson when she'd take us to the institutions on weekends and bring hula hoops. And I'll never forget, she had those hula hoops back in the '60s and '70s. You know how everybody was trying to spin and move their hips? And there she'd be, moving her hips and teaching children to spin their hips and keep the hula hoop up. We'd have timers and stopwatches, seeing how long we could do these things.
There was a lifetime of challenge and invitation. My mom was always about everybody. That's why she loved volunteerism, because in volunteerism, you didn't need a Ph.D. You didn't need to be an expert. You didn't need to have credential. Just come. Join us.
So when I left my job and she asked me to come to work at Special Olympics -- what she said to me wasn't that, "You're charged." What she said was, "You love to teach." And she said, "You can teach more here than you could teach anywhere." And that's the moment at which I said, "OK. I love schools. I love teenagers. I love social and emotional learning. I love teaching social studies and English, and I love watching kids grow and develop."
But when she said to me, "You can teach more here than you can teach anywhere," I thought, "I think she has a point." And so I've tried to use my skills and my interests and my belief in development and growth and children, in particular, to allow the athletes of Special Olympics to teach, because that's really what I found as soon as I got to Special Olympics, that I wasn't gonna be the teacher. But they were. And my job was to enable them to be in the front of the class and teach their lessons. And then if we could do that, we could make the world a little bit better.
ESPN: What was it like to be there in the beginning of this inclusion movement?
TS: For many people with intellectual disabilities, their families -- and people who love and care about them -- it's been very difficult. The road has been painful. To be excluded, to watch other people be excluded, to be mocked, to be humiliated, to be ridiculed, to be denied a place to live, a place to go to school, a place to see a doctor, a place to have a job.
And I'm sorry to say, [this is] the painful present for many people with intellectual disabilities today. Still most people with an intellectual disability never go to school. Still most people get horrible health care. Still most people don't have a job. The vast majority are told that they don't belong. That they're just too broken to belong.
But I would say, at the same time, this is the magic of sport. Sport has given us this tool, this teaching experience. Sport has given us a vehicle to challenge that fear-based exclusion and replace it with a love-based inclusion. We become teammates.
I think the world is hungry right now. In the midst of so much tension and so much fear and so much division, where many people, unrelated to disability, are coming to the very sad conclusion that we -- even in the United States -- that we're just too different to get along.
And in a moment like that, the athlete of Special Olympics has something very profound to say. "That's wrong. We're not too different to get along." And they can almost say in their own words, "I've lived the other side of that equation. I've been on the outside. I've been treated as though I was too different to belong. And it's wrong. We have more in common than you can realize. Let's reconnect. Let's see each other. Let's open our hearts just a little bit and find a path forward."
ESPN: Can you think of an impactful time when you thought, "That just changed my life"?
TS: I'll never forget seeing Donal Page do his event in Ireland in 2003. I was at the venue for the motor activities, which is for athletes who have the most significant challenges. The people who have to overcome the absolute most in order to get to the playing field.
Donal suffered very severe brain damage when he was just a little boy -- just over 2 years old -- and almost lost his life three or four times. But he made it, and his mom and dad, who were dairy farmers in Ireland, agreed to raise him with his seven brothers and sisters. But he was no longer able to control his body, no longer able to control speech, no longer able to control his hygiene. But he went home and they raised him like the other children. So at the age of 17, he had his chance in front of 1,000 people in Dublin to complete his event.
And his event, which was a Herculean challenge for him, he was to lift a beanbag from one side of the tray to the other. So there I was in the front row -- with the president of Ireland and 1,000 great Irish fans. And as the gun went off for him to start, it was clear that despite all of his effort and training, his arm just wouldn't go.
And he kept trying. And his arm, his shoulder, but he couldn't get his hand to move. And you could hear a hush in the room, as we all were almost devastated by this enormous effort that was seemingly hopeless. Well, at the three-minute mark -- and that's a long time to look at a young man trying to move his hand.
At the three-minute mark, Donal Page finally got his hand to flop, if you will, onto that bag. And in the following minutes, ever so slowly, that bag came up. And 1,000 people in that room saw his hand shake and tremor and move slowly, ever so slowly. When it got to about halfway, you know, we were all standing up. And now it was like the Final Four. I mean, the cheers were loud and people were screaming.
And Donal Page put that bean bag down in 18 minutes. And I realized I'd seen the greatest athletic performance I'd ever seen in my life. I'd seen the NBA and World Cup, but I'd never seen a more brave, a more courageous, a more accomplished man. Fearless, you know? Which one of us wouldn't hide if we were confronted with so many obstacles? Which one of us wouldn't be embarrassed and stay home? Not him.
Right in front of 1,000 people, he put everything he had into building a more peaceful and a more hopeful and a more joyful future for his country, for his family and for himself. I thought to myself, "I have a lot to learn from Donal Page." And I think the most important thing he taught me was never to be afraid to do your best, you know? Like, just get up and do it, for gosh sakes. Stop worrying and obsessing and being afraid. So often, we live with so much anxiety about, "What are people gonna think?" Not Donal Page. Whatever you think, here I am. A champion.
ESPN: What do you want Special Olympics to be like in the next 50 years?
TS: Well, I just want it to be about everybody. I don't want the message to be about disability. I don't want the message to be about people with intellectual disability. I don't want the message to be about compassion. I dare say I don't want the message to be about a charity. I want the message to be a movement. I want it to be about all of us.
I want to end "them and us," and I wanna have only us, a new kind of us that replaces that idea. I hope some day we don't even think of disability. I hope someday we begin to see people of all kinds as being gifted before we start to see what their limitations or challenges might be. A giftedness-first mentality.
So I think we can teach that through Special Olympics. I think we can think it for our athletes, but even more importantly, for the 6 billion people on earth who are hungry for it. I think we're gonna change schools. I think we're gonna change early childhood. I think we're gonna change health care.
I think we're gonna change self-advocacy. And I think we're gonna ultimately change culture and political systems. So I'm pretty bullish. And I don't think there's an issue that's more important today in the world than where we face what I consider to be the most dangerous problem on earth, which is attitudes of mass destruction. The fuel of an attitude of mass destruction is the fear that someone is too different to be able to get along with.
And therefore, we have to exclude or bar or ban or even worse, destroy them. That's the most dangerous thing on earth today. We [at Special Olympics] have the opposite: attitudes of mass inclusion. That's why we're leading a revolution -- and it's gonna touch every country in the world. And in 50 years, maybe we'll be out of business because we'll have done all that. That would be wonderful.
ESPN: What do you hope that they teach us? What do you want us to learn this week?
TS: I hope the athletes teach [us to] open our hearts just a little more. Take a pause. You know, slow down just a little bit. See one another a little bit more. When you go home at night, your brothers, your sisters, your husband, your wife, your neighbor, your college roommate -- slow down just a little. Take another look.
Maybe start to see each other a little bit more clearly. And when we do that, I think maybe find the fact that we can be hopeful again as a country. Hopeful again about the fact that we all do have something beautiful within us. If you see that in someone else, you'll find the ways to make it more powerful and more a part of your life in the future. I hope people see that everybody has a gift.