Smemory is amazing. Timothy Shriver was not even three years old when, in June 1962, his mother Eunice invited young people with intellectual disabilities to a one-day sports camp on their farm in Maryland for the first time. In contrast to the little boy named Wendell, with whom Timothy spent the hours on the parental estate, he does not have a handicap. Still, the kids swam, ran, and ate together. “Our site was a big playground. The special thing was that everyone had great fun and seemed happy. Only time passed too quickly,” Shriver remembers and raves about his mother in an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG: “She was a courageous visionary, lived in the belief that every person is unique, holy and worthy.”
On that summer day, 34 children between the ages of six and 16 of different skin colors were splashing about in the Shrivers’ backyard pool. Supervised by 26 supervisors, they kicked footballs, threw basketball hoops and rode ponies across the grounds. The then 40-year-old Eunice Shriver dreamed of enabling people with Down syndrome to have an equal existence in society through sport.
At the time, the victims were downright rejected in America, which the protagonist experienced in her own family. The marginalized were considered difficult, unteachable and warlike, and were locked away in prisons. Physical activity was taboo to avoid injury, leading many of them to become overweight or obese.
It was not foreseeable at the time that the first “Camp Shriver” would one day become a global movement with the Special Olympics as a sporting highlight, which is now being held in Berlin for the 16th time, even though the initiator had found her life’s work. Although: She would have liked to have chosen a different career.
Inspired by the fate of her sister Rosemary
Eunice, née Shriver, was a true Kennedy, born into a family of immense wealth and power. But she was “just” a woman. Only the sons John F. and Robert counted for her father Joseph P. Kennedy. They should achieve what was denied him, namely the promotion to the White House. Eunice, on the other hand, who was born in 1921 as the fifth child of the East Coast dynasty, “just didn’t get noticed,” writes her biographer. Although the intelligent woman had a Stanford degree in sociology, she didn’t get a chance to pursue a career in politics or public life. So she decided to use her connections for the powerless.
The restless activist was inspired not least by the fate of her sister Rosemary, who is three years her senior. She was born with a slight intellectual disability. Her father saw her as a disruptive factor in the family’s ambitions and arranged for a brain operation that failed. From then on, the daughter was mentally and physically severely handicapped. As a result, Kennedy Sr. put her in a mental institution and cut her out of family life. Eunice did not dare to oppose the patriarch. It was only when her father lost his ability to speak after a stroke in 1961 and could no longer contradict him that she acted and brought her sister back into the midst of her loved ones.
Rosemary didn’t start when the first Special Olympics were opened on July 20, 1968 by her sister at Chicago’s Soldier Field with the words: “I want to win, but if I can’t win, I want to bravely do my best!” This sentence is today’s oath of athletes. Rosemary was in the audience, as was Eunice’s son Timothy, who took over as President of the World Games from his mother, who died in 2009.
“Will have experiences that nobody will forget”
More than 1,000 mentally challenged people from 26 states and Canada competed for medals in track and field, swimming and field hockey. Since then, 14 Special Olympics have been held in the summer and eleven in the winter. The program now also includes the promotion of inclusion for everyone, i.e. people with and without intellectual disabilities train together and compete in competitions. Over 7,000 activists from over 180 countries have gathered in Berlin under the motto “Together we are unbeatable”. They compete in 26 sports.
“We will have experiences that no one will forget,” promises Timothy Shriver. Not only is he looking forward to eventful days, he is also looking forward to seeing Bob Beamon, 76, again. The long jumper of the century had already made an entry in the history books three months before his fabulous world record jump of 8.90 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. At the premiere of the Special Olympics, he appeared as their ambassador – and the first ever.
“The World Games became an elixir of life for me. Whenever possible, I’ll be there,” said Beamon WELT AM SONNTAG. Eunice Kennedy-Shriver was very close to him, says the Global Ambassador. “She was a fantastic woman. She saw the dangers of inequality and set new expectations for inclusion. We can still learn from her today as the world faces a systemic erosion of rights for marginalized people. I am glad that the son carries on her legacy so honorably.”
When Beamon was asked in the spring of 1968 by Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion who worked on the team of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, if he could imagine doing something for the mentally and multiply disabled, he immediately agreed . He was “really happy that they wanted to win him over. Beamon has always been interested in working with the socially disadvantaged, supporting them on their difficult path, true to the slogan: “Dreams can come true, look at me”.
Beamon’s older brother had brain damage
Raised in the slums of New York, he was already a gang leader by the age of 14, but could neither read nor write. He went through a lot of misery and suffering at a young age and experienced how disabled people of his age were marginalized by society, which he felt infinitely sorry for, but at the time there was nothing he could do about it.
And there was another serious reason for the exceptional athlete to agree to Johnson’s request. Beamon’s older brother Fred was born prematurely. He had a deformed head, brain damage, and was an epileptic who could neither walk nor speak. “My mother was kicked, hit and abused by her husband during pregnancy, which may be the reason for the damage. In my own family, I experienced what it means to live with someone who has a health problem.”
When his brother was eight or nine, he was transferred to a government facility for disabled children. He could no longer be cared for at home. The change of location proved to be a blessing, as it enabled him to take up sports. As a wheelchair user, he developed so well that he competed several times in the National Special Olympics and even in the World Games. “Fred provided grandiose moments of happiness. I was so proud of him,” Beamon said.
He is now excited to see what awaits him, apart from meeting Timothy Shriver at the biggest multi-sport event in Germany since the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. The last time he was in Berlin was before the fall of the Wall.