Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver — whose organisation celebrates 50 years in 2018 — dreams of a world in which nobody stands in the way of people with intellectual disabilities who want to take part in sport.
Shriver, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics, oversees a body that has around five million athletes with intellectual disabilities and holds 100,000 events around the world annually.
Events to mark this year’s anniversary include a “Global Day of Inclusion” at Soldier Field, Chicago, which hosted the first International Special Olympics Summer Games in July 1968.
Timothy Shriver, nephew of assassinated US president John F Kennedy, says he hopes ordinary people will help turn the tide of prejudice and enable their goal to be achieved.
“I think you can roll back prejudice significantly but not completely,” he told AFP in a phone interview from his office in Washington DC.
“The goal is to have unified sports in every school and club round the world. Not most, not some, not a good number, but all. I would say sports clubs at the moment, there are probably perhaps four percent who do.
“There is a long way to go but we live in an era when change can happen quickly and we think in our 50th anniversary it can happen.”
Shriver, a teacher by profession, who became chairman of the Special Olympics in 1996, says when ordinary people speak up the issue will gain momentum.
“When the average person says that and the health centre opens up and doctors treat them (people with intellectual disabilities) and schools are open as well as communities to them and a job is within reach, once we get to that tipping point of the community then we have a chance. And that is what we are looking for.”
– ‘Unfair and dehumanising’ –
Shriver’s organisation holds World Games every two years, alternating between summer and winter events, with the next competition in Abu Dhabi in 2019.
The Special Olympics offer more than 30 Olympic-style individual and team sports from alpine skiing to volleyball.
Shriver describes the amount of prejudice that still exists as “astonishing”.
“There are doctors who refuse to treat people with intellectual disabilities, healthcare institutions that say to mothers ‘your child is hopeless’, schools who don’t have programmes and companies who say we won’t hire people like you,” he said.
“It is infuriating, frustrating, unfair and dehumanising and this is why we exist, to oppose it and overcome it and end it. Until discrimination is ended we will not cease. That is the bottom line.”
– ‘Good will win’ –
Shriver, whose father Sargent is known as the architect of the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s and in 1972 was running mate to defeated Democrat presidential candidate George McGovern, is now pushing to reach the estimated 500,000 refugees with intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics Europe Eurasia held a forum, “On the Margins”, in Amsterdam this week to draw attention to the issues facing refugees with intellectual disabilities attended by various UN bodies.
“When I had the chance to meet with Pope Francis I told him we stand for anyone who has been excluded, is on the periphery, anyone society has said does not belong here,” said Shriver.
“Our athletes say ‘come and play with us’. It is our DNA, we are not experts on refugees, or indeed a lot of problematic issues like gender and race but we are experts on the idea of including people and no one is better at that than our athletes.”
Shriver was a co-producer on the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad” about an revolt by African slaves on board a Spanish-owned slave ship and he believes there is a comparison between their leader, (Joseph) Cinque, and his athletes.
“The hero is not the people who helped but the unjustly incarcerated slave,” said Shriver. “He leads the rebellion, he leads and inspires the lawyers and challenges the constitution and wins his freedom.
“In this grim and dark time you have an iconic human being taking on the entire system, the bigotry and the slave trade and he wins and you have to remind yourself there are still good people out there and the good will win ultimately.
“It is not always obvious these days, but it will happen.”