Ireland’s hosting of the Games forever changed our Special Olympics movement
JFK could not fulfill his wish to return to Ireland but his sister did
Tim Shriver, Special Olympics president and CEO, with Irish rugby star Brian O’Driscoll, Special Olympian Catriona Ryan, singer Andrea Corr and Toyota Ireland’s Dr Tim Mahony at a sponsor’s event in 2002.
Two monumental events in the history of Ireland are being celebrated this weekend. They occurred 40 years apart, but were deeply and intrinsically connected. As an Irish American, I could not be more proud to be associated with both.
First, this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the visit of my uncle, President John F Kennedy, to the family homestead in New Ross. Though I was a youngster at the time, I remember the excitement that my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, had in accompanying her brother on that historic journey. She spoke often to our family about the remarkable outpouring of love and support the President received throughout the trip. Pictures taken during those few days were prominent throughout our home, each powerfully conveying the warm welcome and familiarity that is so uniquely part of the Irish character.
My mother also recalled how that visit ignited her brother’s love of history. President Kennedy and his brothers and sisters had all been raised with a deep appreciation of history and ancestry, and for the struggle and triumphs of Irish-Americans and the Irish people in particular.
On the day of his departure from Ireland, President Kennedy remarked while in Limerick, “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection, and I certainly will come back in the springtime.” Tragically, that return never happened.
While President Kennedy was the focus of the trip, my mother was equally influenced. I have no doubt that it shaped her life’s work as a champion of the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. The deep rooted values that were reinforced during that trip were precisely the ones she sought to bring to life through the founding of Special Olympics.
Which brings me to the second milestone we celebrate this weekend - the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland. There again, my mother witnessed the warmth and generosity of the Irish people. But this was even more powerful for her. After all, it’s one thing to welcome home a sitting President of the United States. It’s quite another to welcome - with equal pride and enthusiasm and sincerity - thousands of individuals with intellectual disabilities, a population of people who in many parts of the world are seen as defective, worthless, and disposable.
But for 10 glorious days in 2003, my mother’s vision of a world in which those with intellectual disabilities were respected and admired came true. Hers was a vision rooted in personal experience of watching her sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, be shunned and dismissed, routinely denied the opportunities that were available to others. She translated the anger she felt about that injustice into a drive for providing opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities to develop and demonstrate their talents and abilities on the field of play.
When our World Summer Games came to Ireland it forever changed our movement and, I hope, forever changed this nation. As athletes from all over the world visited host towns, bands played, schools opened and local officials welcomed them with keys to the city. Competitions were packed and crowds were boisterous. The energy and enthusiasm were infectious and inescapable.
It was a heady experience for the athletes who had experienced stigma, isolation and stereotype for all of their lives. But here they ran, they swam, they competed to the cheers of an inspired nation. It was as though through their eyes that Ireland saw the best of herself, and was reminded of that blend of courage, commitment and acceptance that makes her great. No wonder Ireland was the country for which President Kennedy held the greatest affection.
Since the Games in Ireland, and I would say in large part because of them, Special Olympics has continued to grow and expand worldwide, today empowering more than four million people with intellectual disabilities in more than 170 countries. Every year, more than 1 million volunteers help organize over 50,000 competitions - big and small ones in communities and countries across the globe - each one an invitation to unleash the human spirit at its best.
For my mother in particular, the 2003 World Games were a doubly emotional sort of homecoming. After all, President Kennedy was never able to fulfil his wish to “come back in the springtime.” But 40 years later, the athletes of Special Olympics did, receiving the same welcome that she and President Kennedy experienced in 1963. Sometimes history repeats itself in remarkably unexpected and wonderful ways.
l Dr Timothy Shriver is chairman and chief executive of Special Olympics International.