Let me win, But if I cannot win Let me be brave In the attempt.
It’s a simple motto. A phrase that, more than 50 years ago, Eunice Kennedy Shriver uttered to kick off the inaugural Special Olympics in Chicago. Today that motto lives on, and so does Shriver’s legacy.
Shriver’s tireless efforts to provide equal footing and opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities grew with her founding of the Special Olympics—and the influence she left on her family has kept that torch burning past her death. Today Eunice’s sons, Anthony Shriver and Timothy Shriver have created an event that epitomizes their mother’s life’s work: The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge, scheduled for Oct. 23, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
“It seems only natural after my mother passed away last August that Anthony and I pull together a unifying event to honor her legacy in our nation’s capital,” said Timothy, who is chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics. “Our goal in this inaugural year is to galvanize the beltway around this important cause and help foster greater acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
“Washington has been our home,” added Anthony, the founder and chairman of Best Buddies International. “We all grew up in Washington and have a special bond with the community, so it made sense to do a major marquee event there. It made sense, in light of my mother’s passing, to do an event in her honor.”
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver (EKS) Challenge is a joint venture by Best Buddies International and Special Olympics and is, in some sense, an evolution of the longstanding Best Buddies Ball, which has raised millions of dollars in support of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Some of the biggest names and faces in Washington are showing their support for the EKS Challenge, which includes events for people of all ages and abilities. Thousands of participants are expected to be in attendance, including as many as 700 Special Olympians and members of the Best Buddies program.
Included in the EKS Challenge events are a twenty-mile cycling event, the Carl Lewis 5K run and 3K walk (led by ten-time Olympic medalist Lewis), a corporate relay, a youth fun run for the engagement and motivation of young people, and a private luncheon for all participants. “We wanted to carry on the spirit that my mom had,” Anthony said. “She was really focused on family and on getting family members involved and engaged.”
Timothy notes that the program’s primary strength is its ability to welcome and inspire everyone who participates. “It doesn’t matter how athletic you are, how old or young you are, or whether you have ever been involved with Special Olympics or Best Buddies International in the past,” he said. “The EKS Challenge is for everyone. “This is a cause that affects everyone, in the sense that it is about community, acceptance and inclusion—ideals that every American holds dear to his or her heart.”
The EKS Challenge’s running events, led by Mayor Adrian Fenty, will begin at the Washington Monument and circulate around historical markers throughout the capital city. The EKS Challenge is co-chaired by Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and six-time Special Olympics medalist Ken Holden. The two are longtime friends, thanks to the Best Buddies program, and communicate daily via e-mail.
Anthony believes camaraderie building to be at the core of the EKS Challenge, and says it is the primary reason why Best Buddies and the Special Olympics combined on this venture. “We’re really into the whole friendship model, which is, I think, a gigantic message that needs to get out there,” he said. “Without a network of friends, it’s really tough to have any success in your life.”
Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the sister of politicians John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy. An avid sports fan, Eunice creatively linked sport with disability and rehabilitation and was a major advocate for disability rights. The Kennedy family often spoke publicly about their sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability.
Services for people with disabilities were minimal during Rosemary’s childhood. Spurred by this shortage, Eunice and her family opened their estate to children who were institutionalized with intellectual disabilities. Eunice frequently hosted activities and competitions in horseback riding, swimming and kickball. These efforts provided new opportunities for children with disabilities while also illustrating the Kennedy family’s interest in treating people equally.
“At some level, even at the age of five, I began to associate fun, play and excitement with understanding,” Timothy said. “It was a great gift from my parents, and it showed me that people are wonderfully different and yet the same. My mother’s passion for sports, love for her sister and anger at the lack of services for her sister fueled her desire to find solutions and opportunities for all people with intellectual disabilities. She saw sports as a vehicle for unity and wanted to give people with intellectual disabilities a basic right: the right to play.”
For many people with disabilities, the right to play has often been treated as a learned process—one which takes considerable loads of effort because often such opportunities were nonexistent.
“I think people with disabilities have historically been left out of the process,” Anthony Shriver said. “Health has been an ongoing challenge for them, and it’s a critical component to having a well-rounded life. Sport is a big piece of that overall puzzle.”
Many of the long-standing roadblocks to sport and recreation for people with disabilities have since been surmounted, and much of that progress can be credited to Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics. An increase in the popularity and simple knowledge of the Paralympics—an international, multi-sport event in which people with disabilities compete—as well as an increase in awareness of disability are due in some part to the large number of injured military veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Participation of those veterans in various sports has transformed adaptive physical activity into something of a social buzz.
But what happens when the games are over? What happens after the closing ceremonies? What happens when the veteran’s rehabilitation is complete and he or she goes back into a community in which adaptive sports may not be readily accessible? Anthony says these sorts of questions are of great concern to the Shriver family.
“What happens throughout the year? What happens to a person when he’s looking for a job? What happens to a person when he’s looking for a network of friends and for better integration in community life?” Anthony asked. “With the combination of Best Buddies and the Special Olympics, we’re really hammering away at the key components of someone’s life: integration, inclusion, friendship, socialization, sports, wellness, mental and physical health. You put all those things in one package, and you really start knocking the ball out of the park. You really start to manage and work toward the bettering of the overall experience that a person with special needs has throughout his life.”
Boosting the overall experiences of people with disabilities is a major interest of the EKS Challenge. The Challenge aims to use a prominent national stage to raise awareness of people with intellectual disabilities. Meanwhile, Best Buddies is focused on the employment of people with disabilities, while the Special Olympics continues its sports-based mission to instill the values of teamwork and relationship-building. In the end, the Shrivers say they are merely continuing the work of their mother and attempting to eliminate as many of the stereotypes against people with disabilities as possible.
“It’s great for someone to see that a person with a disability can ride 20 miles on a bike, can run as fast as someone else who has no disability, can hold a job, can give a great speech,” Anthony said. “This gives the public a chance to re-examine their assumptions and to focus in on our organizations, what we do, what we achieve—and what people with intellectual disabilities achieve every single day. That’s why these events are really important.”
Timothy agrees that a concerted effort to demolish the stereotypes that exist about people with disabilities is the fundamental reason for the EKS Challenge. “The mission of the Challenge is to build awareness and support for the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through cycling, running and walking,” Timothy said. “This effort is a reflection of the power of collaboration and of bringing people together around a common cause.”
The brothers agree that Eunice Kennedy Shriver never fell into the easy pitfalls of stereotyping. Instead, they say, she spent the better part of her life working to provide opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities and to create an opportunistic future for every American. She laid the groundwork for this effort through the founding of the Special Olympics and through organization of other fundraising events. Today her work lives on through the inaugural Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge. Her sons are committed to keeping that work in the public’s hearts and minds. “She started something special,” Anthony said, “but it’s our responsibility to keep that thing going and to make sure she didn’t spend 45 years of her life doing something that didn’t have any legs. This is an effort to make sure the legs are strong, to make sure the foundation is strong, and to make sure we continue to reinvent ourselves, provide services, create awareness, and give opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to showcase their skills.”
by Josh Pate
The Special Olympics were founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver with the goal of having a million athletes participate in the games. Today, more than 3.4 million athletes compete from all regions of the world.
Best Buddies was founded in 1989 by Anthony Shriver as a volunteer movement to create one-to-one friendships to develop leadership and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The organization impacts more than 700,000 people with intellectual disabilities.