More than 50 years in, Special Olympics' mission hasn't changed much, says CEO Timothy Shriver, whose mother started the foundation. But its influence is all the more important in a time of political conflict.
There were a lot of things Special Olympics CEO Timothy Shriver was required to do as a scion of the Kennedy family.
Wear itchy suits. Sit still while his father, Sargent Shriver, and uncles John and Robert Kennedy delivered political speeches. Smile for the cameras.
“You sit there and people ask you silly questions and you’re eight years old,” Shriver, now 58, recalled the other day.
It wasn’t like that when his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, included him in her work for Special Olympics, which she founded in 1962. She invited children with intellectual disabilities to the family’s Maryland farm, Timberlawn, to compete in games, and her own kids joined in.
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“With my mother, it was kind of a blast,” said Shriver from the organization’s office in Washington, D.C. “It was fun. Kickball and ropes courses. She kept us moving. We played a lot.
“She had the benefit of doing important work, but in a way that was fun,” he continued. “Most things that are fun are not important and most things that are important are not fun.”
For more than five decades, Special Olympics, whose 2018 Games open July 1 in Seattle, has been both.
But in this time of “other,” when fear and judgment of our fellow humans are part of the daily national conversation, the Special Olympics USA Games may be more than important — they could serve as a balm for a country torn apart.
“I think both sides of the political spectrum are shaped with vitriol,” Shriver said. “We do ‘other’ as a verb. It’s everywhere. We live in a bullying culture, where politicians thrive on ‘othering’ their opponents. There’s a great incentive to continue to fight. It’s like in high school, when people waited for an audience to fight.”
Special Olympics is a chance to take a deep breath and focus on our common humanity.
“Our athletes are a good example,” Shriver said. “They thrive in red states and blue states. They are people of color and mainstream folks, indigenous nations. It brings out the common ground.”
Shriver is happy that the host is Seattle, a place with fond memories for him of climbing Mount Rainier with his family and mountaineer Jim Whittaker in 1975; trips to the top of the Space Needle (“I remember it very vividly”) and friends like Lovin’ Scoopful ice-cream founder Dan Samson. The late John Stanford, who served as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, was a big supporter.
“I feel like I’m at home there,” Shriver said. “I think the culture of Seattle — it’s creative, it’s about nature, it’s about the pioneering spirit — is very much a part of the energy of the Special Olympics movement.”
This is also a tolerant place, a sanctuary city that embraces everyone.
Seattle | July 1 – 6
“We’re in Seattle because we are taking a stand for inclusion, for the knowledge that everyone has a gift,” Shriver said. “And we are better when we celebrate others’ gifts than when we demonize each other’s differences.
“It’s not Republican or Democrat, but it’s human. We are not partisan, but we are oriented to the heart of America now,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to elevate and celebrate.”
Under his leadership, Shriver has worked to expand Special Olympics’ research agenda and its commitment to health care, self-advocacy and empowerment. He is also passionate about using sport as a teaching tool, and sees Special Olympics as an educational organization.
“The mission hasn’t changed a letter,” he said. “But it’s more to power change. Teachers are people who try to enable others to do things, and that’s where I’d like to locate my center of passion. I’d love to help people discover the beauty in themselves and others. That’s what keeps me growing.”
Last year, Shriver accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on behalf of his late mother, and spoke of the 250 million people with intellectual disabilities.
“This is their time,” Shriver said in his speech. “This is our time. Follow the athletes of the Special Olympics, follow their leadership. Choose to include. When in doubt, choose to include. Play unified. Learn from these extraordinary human beings and help us create a future of justice and joy.”
Did he have any advice to someone who has never attended Special Olympics?
“Watch closely,” Shriver said. “Don’t let the first look of what you see be the last look. Look twice. Try to get inside the athletes, try to imagine his or her life. The practices. The effort to be there. Unpack for yourself the journey that brought that athlete to the 100-meter dash.”
This isn’t a loud, fast 30-second jump-shot video, he said. This isn’t the slam-dunk contest in the NBA.
“You have to slow down and pay attention from your heart,” he said. “And then you realize you’re watching the best athletes you’ve ever seen.”