Few individuals in Special Olympics history have done more for the movement than Tim Shriver. Son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the organization in 1968, Shriver has led Special Olympics as CEO or chairman for nearly two decades. He seemed to be everywhere this past week in Los Angeles, as the World Games made their first appearance in the U.S. since 1999. ESPN.com caught up with him for an interview a few hours before the closing ceremony at the L.A. Coliseum, during which Shriver spoke candidly about the Games' defining moments and what challenges remain moving forward.
ESPN.com: The World Games is an event years in the making. What do you hope comes out of this moving forward?
Tim Shriver: We have programs in 170 countries, and 100 of them have no money, no paid staff. So we're very, very small and very poor as an organization, as a movement, in terms of the resources we need to try to provide the life-changing moments we want to provide. So if the Bangladeshes go back and nothing happens for the next two, four years, we've failed. If they go back and the ministers of sport and the large multinational corporations start to pay attention, start to build out infrastructure, start to hire, then we've played our role well.
ESPN.com: Has the goal changed at all?
Shriver: A little. My vision is similar to Title IX. Not that long ago, high schools in America had no women's sports. Today, most high schools in this country and around the world have no inclusive sport. And everybody around the world thinks that's normal. Well, it's not normal. It shouldn't be normal. Every school in the world should have a Special Olympics unified team, and should have unified leagues at the community level, where people can learn how to overcome differences and build relationships that are more like teammates than anything else. That's our big vision now. We don't have a press conference to announce it, but we're going to push that in a much more aggressive way than we have in the past. Because our story just got bigger.
ESPN.com: What is the organization not yet doing that you want it to?
Shriver: There are 3 million people with intellectual disabilities, and 7 billion who don't understand them, for the most part. We've got to reach people much younger. We've got to get to 2- and 4- and 6-year-olds, get them playing together and get middle school kids playing together. Our hope is if we play together, we can actually shape attitudes of acceptance and trust and openness. Everybody says when you get older you can be a leader. B.S. If you're a 12-year-old, you're the only person on Earth who can make a 12-year-old with Down syndrome feel included. A 14-year-old can't do it, a parent can't do it, a teacher can't do it -- only a 12-year-old can. So we have a whole youth-empowerment strategy to tell 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds that they can become agents of change, today.
ESPN.com: How do they follow through on that?
Shriver: At the end of the day it's all designed to create moments of encounter, moments of contact. The great fear in the world is that someone's too different from me to be able to get along with them. When that escalates at the political level, you have war: "I'm so different from you that I need to kill you." That's the ultimate statement of fear in my view. We're not at that level, but we're at the human level where we're trying to say if you're afraid of that guy across the room, you're afraid of that person in the school behind the concrete wall, come on in, let's play basketball. We can heal you.
ESPN.com: Within the next two weeks or month, are you going to be launching any particular campaigns to try to raise funds to leverage the visibility of World Games?
Shriver: It's a fair question. The answer honestly speaking is no. The answer more organically is we're always doing that. We're the most decentralized movement on Earth. When these countries go home, they'll meet with the sports minister and they'll tell stories and bring the best from ESPN or the New York Times or the L.A. Times, and they'll say, "Look, this school still doesn't have a basketball hoop and the kids are still segregated. Maybe now, Mr. Minister -- or Mr. Mayor, Mr. Governor, Mr. Provincial Representative -- maybe you can help us. It's not expensive. Give us a basketball hoop."
ESPN.com: I know it's cliché, but did you have a favorite moment from this past week?
Shriver: That's hard, but I was at the young athletes "My First Kick" demonstration the other day, and this little guy couldn't have been any bigger than a couple feet tall. Literally, the soccer ball came up to his waist. And all of a sudden he started dribbling left foot to right, and he kicked the ball into the little goal. He dug it out with his right foot and took it back out and started dribbling again. He had a crew cut and tiny little face, and I just got down on the floor and started taking photos. I probably have 400 in my phone. It was such a beautiful moment. He was so full of happiness and life, and part of me was looking at him, like, the world's going to be hard for him. But not right now. Right now he's ... I'm sorry for getting emotional, but ... right now he's just full of joy.