In 2018, our revolution came full circle. We traveled back to our roots, back to Chicago, to the grass of Soldier Field, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Special Olympics Games. It was a glorious week of remembering and reflection. Then, without missing a beat, we resumed our work in the world: the work of sport and play, the work of joyful inclusion.
What a time we had in Chicago! And what a thrill to see how far the movement has come. The contrast with our beginnings was stark. Most of us know that day only from the black-and-white photos: the athletes in their improvised outfits, the empty stands. Eunice Kennedy Shriver declaring the Games open and saying for the first time those words about the will to win, and being brave in the attempt.
Some of the athletes of 1968 Games rejoined us, grayer, frailer, some using wheelchairs. They passed the ball — literally — to a new generation of athletes in a ceremony in the stadium. It was sunny and gusty and then rainy and then we were all drenched. A deluge hit the plaza outside Soldier Field at another ceremony where the Eternal Flame of Hope monument was being lit. The celebration carried on, though, with torch-bearing athletes from every Special Olympics Region, plus the unquenchable Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspiration Officer, who began running with us in 1971 and has not stopped.
The unveiling and lighting of the Eternal Flame of Hope, designed by the sculptor Richard Hunt, was one of several events summoning the spirit of ’68. It was preceded by a ceremonial Law Enforcement Torch Run® for Special Olympics that featured hundreds of law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes from Chicago and the world. The first Special Olympics Unified Cup presented by Toyota, an invitational Unified football tournament, featured 24 teams of players, with and without intellectual disabilities, from every Special Olympics Region. In the women’s final, Slovakia defeated Brazil, 2-1. Ecuador defeated Uruguay, 1-0, in the men’s final.
A Global Day of Inclusion was capped by a lakeside concert featuring Chance the Rapper, Usher, Smokey Robinson and Jason Mraz. And in a striking display of global solidarity, more than 225 landmarks across the world, including the Empire State Building, Niagara Falls, the London Eye and the Sydney Opera House, were bathed in red light on the night of 20 July. The celebration of tolerance and respect was called “Light Up for Inclusion!”
Before and after Chicago, it was a busy year around the world.
As part of the anniversary commemoration, ESPN and Special Olympics began a yearlong series of short films that tell the stories of athletes and others — we call them “Game Changers” — who have made exemplary gains for inclusion. The films, televised on ESPN and posted online, illustrate not just the history of Special Olympics, but also the people who are leading the movement into the future.
The year saw the beginning of a five-year anti-discrimination campaign called The Revolution Is Inclusion. Its goal is to end the injustice and intolerance that harm people with intellectual disabilities in every aspect of their lives, from sports and health to education and leadership. It includes an invitation to everyone to sign the “Inclusion Pledge,” at JoinTheRevolution.org, pledging support of the athletes leading the campaign.
The struggle for inclusive health, with our partner the Golisano Foundation, continued throughout the year. Special Olympics conducted 1,400 Healthy Athletes events, offering nearly 176,203 free health screenings and training more than 41,213 health care professionals and students on how to better care for people with intellectual disabilities. In June, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we introduced the Center for Inclusive Health, a web-based clearinghouse of health care resources developed by Special Olympics and other experts.
Special Olympics Unified Schools, our program to promote a culture of empathy, acceptance and compassion in schools worldwide, kept up its rapid pace of growth in 2018. The program is now offered in more than 107,700 schools, including 7,683 in the United States. Besides reducing bullying and the use of hurtful language, the programs also inspire young people to spread the lessons of acceptance and inclusion to their families, communities and the larger world.
With over 6 million athletes including over 920,000 Unified partners our global footprint expanded. Special Olympics is now in over 170 countries and territories, with over 106,000 competitions a year. A Unified snowboarding race in January featured Special Olympics athletes on teams with X Games professionals and Olympic medalists. During the NBA All-Star weekend in February, a dozen athletes played with pros in a Unified basketball game. In March, nearly 1,800 athletes competed in the Special Olympics IX Middle East/North Africa Regional Games Abu Dhabi 2018 in the United Arab Emirates. These games were a preview of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. And in June, the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle drew more than 4,000 athletes and coaches.
In late September, the Global Youth Leadership Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, brought together 120 young people from 45 countries, with and without intellectual disabilities. They planned to work with 100 adult leaders on projects to create more inclusive communities in their home countries. These projects, involving inclusive sports and leadership development, are expected to engage 8,500 young people in 250 new Unified Schools and sports clubs worldwide.
In November, more than 220 athletes, with 100 coaches and 300 families, participated in the first Special Olympics World Tennis Invitational in the Dominican Republic. Alongside the tennis invitational, we also held a Global Athlete Congress that led athletes to share ideas and develop leadership skills in order to reach their full potential through leadership roles in Special Olympics, their communities and their workplace. Special Olympics Middle East/North Africa Region held its first Siblings Workshop in Cairo, Egypt, in December. Twenty siblings from the Region shared their experiences, the challenges they face and the ways they overcome barriers. They also collaborated on plans to fight stigma and promote acceptance and inclusion back in their communities.
The year ended on a fitting note: A Special Olympics Iowa athlete and USA Games powerlifting competitor, Mitchell Betsworth, was featured in Sports Illustrated Year in Pictures feature. At the 2018 USA Games , Betsworth competed in the bench press, squat and deadlift, winning four medals, three gold and one silver. To see his dignity and athletic ferocity presented alongside other great athletes from around the world was a marvelous affirmation of Betsworth’s strength and courage and a sweet victory for inclusion.